Witnessing a film directed by Danny DeVito for the first time is an experience onto itself. One might go in expecting a standard comedy, and instead the result is some bizarre science experiment, testing the tolerance humans have for manic camerawork and oddly timed violence.
There are critics who simply label DeVito’s methods as over-directing i.e. doing so many crazy things behind the camera that it distracts people from viewing a film naturally and possibly hinders actors performances. But DeVito is a jittery little guy. Even the characters he plays in other directors’ films always seem to talk too fast and pace around too much. DeVito channels this frantic energy into his films, and as a result, he rarely lets the camera stay still or the viewer stay comfortable.
His latest film is Duplex, starring Ben Stiller and Drew Barrymore as Alex and Nancy, a happy young couple in search of their dream home. Unable to afford anything sizable in Manhattan, they head to Brooklyn, where a charming old house is practically awaiting them. The only problem is that a little old lady lives upstairs, and because of the rent clause, they can’t kick her out.
So, with their new house discovered, Alex and Nancy inherit a tenant, Mrs. Connelly, who’s been there so long that she only pays $88 a month. At first it seems like the elderly woman, whose soft Scottish accent is both soothing and sharply irritating at once, can’t and wouldn’t harm a soul. But somewhere, probably off to the side of the set, DeVito is pacing, muttering to himself. Things have to change fast.
On Alex and Nancy’s first greeting with Mrs. Connelly, they bring her a bottle of wine to celebrate. She invites them inside, and politely brings them glasses for the wine. They quickly learn that she doesn’t drink. “It’s a sin,” she points out matter-of-factly as they awkwardly take sips.
Juicy little lines like this one litter Duplex.
The story is wonderfully tangible, a fun idea wagging in front of screenwriters until they go “Doh!” Mrs. Connelly’s seemingly innocent routine disturbs the younger tenants severely, and this causes them distress at home and at work. They never fight as a couple, but soon enough Nancy loses her job as a magazine designer and Alex’s book deal falls through. They’re left with very little money and a lot of time to plot the demise this very un-sweet old lady.
Which is a pretty tragic story if they were merely plotting against a random senior citizen, but one of DeVito’s best qualities as a director is making audiences absolutely despise a lone character. In Throw Momma From the Train, he managed to boil up so much hatred for “Momma” that her shrieking and wrinkled grimace (courtesy of the late great Anne Ramsey) has lived on in the psyche of moviegoers for years. In Duplex, the ante is doubly raised; the loathed character emits sympathy from her looks, challenging DeVito to work his devilish magic.
Stiller and Barrymore seem like an ideal combination on paper, but they’re only decent here, neither hit especially high comedic notes. Stiller, having starred in countless funnier pictures, is still incapable of being unlikable, while Barrymore plays the whiny wife with half-interested ease. Little surprise that the most memorable performance come from the old lady, Eileen Essel; who, at several billion years old, is a relative newcomer to film.
Half way in, DeVito succeeds modestly at having the audience wish for Mrs. Connelly death as much as Alex and Nancy do. The intensity becomes rather enticing to watch: what will they try to do to her? When she inadvertently gets the best of them, particularly when she has Alex unclog her sink, only to spray murky brown liquid into Nancy’s face until she vomits down the drain onto him, the film is doing its job well.
DeVito loves this kind of stuff. His camera wobbles around the room, zooming and flying in all directions, exploiting every potentially interesting angle like a Prodigy video. But despite such creative enthusiasm and a little twist at the end, the body of the film is very straight-laced. Jokes fall flat, and DeVito crosses the line of tastelessness once or twice like he’s doing a checklist.
Though, be glad he approached this generally solid pleaser in the first place. And a few word of advice, don’t see it heavily medicated or on a full stomach without an empty popcorn bag in hand.
Shawn Wines can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.