January 16, 2002
Along with fellow actor Clint Eastwood, Danny DeVito has had an underrated career as a director. His best known efforts, Throw Momma from the Train (1987) and The War of the Roses (1989) demonstrated not only distinctive stylistic chops but a knack for dark, comedic material. As of late, he received a critical and commercial mauling with the unfairly maligned Death to Smoochy (2002). However, his latest effort, Duplex (2003) is a train wreck of a movie that wastes the considerable talents of everyone involved.
The opening animated sequence that sets up the premise of the movie also establishes its tone: a silly, over-the-top cartoon. Alex (Stiller) and his wife, Nancy (Barrymore) buy and move into a beautiful old duplex in Brooklyn. Mrs. Connelly (Essell), a kindly old lady lives upstairs in a rent-controlled apartment. The young couple figures that they will outlast their elderly tenant and plan for the future. However, it’s not going to be that easy as Alex stays home to work on his novel and is constantly interrupted by Mrs. Connelly’s endless list of chores (fix her plumbing, take out the trash, etc.). Pretty soon Alex and Nancy’s frustration level reaches critical mass and they start planning ways to retire the old lady permanently.
The problem with Duplex is in its screenplay. The talented cast has nothing to work with as the script trots the usual tired formulas and cliché-ridden dialogue (although, James Remar has a funny role as a hitman who tells people at parties that he’s a pornographer). Ben Stiller recycles his neurotic persona while Drew Barrymore is her predictably pleasant self. The film begins well enough but then gradually devolves in a mean-spirited comedy with unnecessary gross-out moments (do we really need to see Drew Barrymore graphically vomit onto Ben Stiller’s face?). The traditionally likable Stiller and Barrymore are transformed into unattractive monsters that make the audience completely unsympathetic to their plight.
It is easy to see what drew DeVito and Stiller to this project. The former has always been attracted to black comedies and the second half of Duplex is reminiscent of Throw Momma from the Train (although, with none of its wit). The latter also has a history of being involved in decidedly darker material with projects like The Cable Guy (1996). However edgy and misanthropic some of their films may have been, they’ve always had heart. The problem with Duplex is that we don’t care about the protagonists or what happens to them. The film tries to redeem itself with a happy ending but it merely feels tagged on and is a case of too little, too late.
With the commercial failure of Duplex, Miramax has released the DVD with an equally lackluster quantity and quality of extra material. The “Behind-the-Scenes Special” is anything but as DeVito and the cast are shown shooting several scenes from the film. There is no structure to this short featurette, just a slapdash highlight reel of footage.
There are two deleted scenes and an alternate ending included on the disc. The deleted footage is so brief that it could have been left in the film and neither hurt or improved it. The alternate ending was probably cut because test audiences no doubt considered it a downer but at least it would have been consistent in tone with the rest of the movie.
What happened with this movie? DeVito, Stiller, et al should have known better and stayed clear of this turkey. Duplex is a movie filled with badly drawn cartoon characters who spend most of the movie being blown up, electrocuted and shot. Unfortunately, the film is sunk by an unimaginative screenplay that needed a few more rewrites. This Duplex needs to be put back on the market.