By Shawn McKenzie 09/27/2003
I do not understand why all the critics hated last year’s hilariously dark Death to Smoochy. I felt its only problem was that it wasn’t allowed to get dark enough (because of 9/11), but it was very funny. Its director, actor Danny DeVito, always tends to go dark when he directs, and Duplex is the latest example that he is one of the masters of the genre.
Author Alex Rose (Ben Stiller) and publisher Nancy Kendricks (Drew Barrymore) are a newlywed couple who are looking for the first residence that they can call their own. Their realtor, Kenneth (Harvey Fierstein), shows them a large duplex in Brooklyn. It is perfect in every way except one: there is a rent-controlled (the rent is $88 a month) tenant in the apartment above them. She is a sweet old lady named Mrs. Connelly (Eileen Essel), who lives with her macaw named Little Dick (named after her late husband Richard) and is what Nancy determines between 95 and 105 years old. She might die soon, because she appears to be very sick, so Alex and Nancy consider buying the duplex. After consulting Alex’s writer friend Cooper Sinclair (Justin Theroux) and his 4-months pregnant (though not showing at all) wife Celine (Amber Valetta), they buy it. Nancy goes to work with her assistant, Tara (Maya Rudolph), for her difficult boss, Herman (Wallace Shawn), while Alex stays home to finish his second novel that’s due to his publisher, Jean (Swoosie Kurtz), in just a few weeks. Every time he sits down to type something on his laptop, a now very healthy Mrs. Connelly frequently shows up and demands frivolous landlord-like duties from him. What’s worse is that she leaves her TV on at night, and the walls are too thin for them to get any sleep. Alex can’t even take a daytime nap, because she practices during the day with her brass band for an upcoming performance. Reasoning with her and secretly installing a clapper on her TV don’t seem to be working, so they offer to pay for her to move back to Ireland (where she was originally from.) Before she gets a chance to take them up on their offer, she chokes on a candy that they brought her and passes out. They perform CPR on her, but when she comes to though, she thinks they’re doing weird sexual acts to her and reports them to her police officer friend Dan (Robert Wisdom.) Dan tells them that he is keeping an eye on them from then on. Their lives soon go right into the toilet, and they actually consider killing Mrs. Connelly. After a couple of unsuccessful attempts do it themselves, Alex and Nancy hire a local hitman named Chick (James Remar) that they met at their housewarming party a few weeks ago. Cooper had brought him to the party, and his legitimate cover business is producing pornography on DVD. If they can just get rid of Mrs. Connelly, maybe their lives will go back to normal, and they can fulfill their plans, including trying to have a baby (one such attempt Mrs. Connelly witnesses through the window.)
DeVito’s feature film directorial debut was the similar Throw Momma from the Train. Both were about getting rid of an annoying old lady, and both were deliciously funny. He also made the dark comedies The War of the Roses and the aforementioned Death to Smoochy…all very funny movies. He even did dark comedy-lite for kids with the weird little movie Matilda. I’m not sure why other critics just don’t get his humor. It isn’t just the dark, violent parts that make them funny. It’s the little things, like the couple doing the math in their head over how old the woman is when she tells them that Richard died in 1963 after they were married for 58 years. One chore that Mrs. Connelly has Alex do is hold open a bag while she individually puts grapes in it (after counting each pill at the pharmacist and each penny at the bank.) Also, any movie with a twist ending, whether it be suspense, horror, drama, or comedy, always gets my approval.
The performances in this movie were almost perfect. Stiller was great of course, being the veteran of several gross-out and dark comedies, but Barrymore still needs to develop more in this area. Essel is the real find though. Her only other significant credit is working with the Pauly Shore of Britain, Ali G. In this movie, she pulls off sweet and sadistic flawlessly. She’s up there with Ellen “the rappin’ granny” Dow in terms of talented funny old ladies.
Other critics may hate DeVito’s Duplex, but it just makes me want to have the short, bald actor get behind the camera more often.
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