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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Even though Danny DeVito was not the first director selected for helming duties on “Duplex” (he replaced Greg Mottola), the movie certainly resonates with the macabre sensibility of some of the director’s earlier, better work, like “Throw Momma From the Train” and “The War of the Roses.” DeVito, who is absolutely hilarious in Woody Allen’s latest, doesn’t have the same good fortune behind the camera on this outing, despite the potential for a gruesome good time. “Duplex” is not a bad movie – many audience members might be surprised at just how many solid laughs it contains – but it is not particularly good either.

Ben Stiller and Drew Barrymore play Alex and Nancy, a young, upwardly mobile couple looking to trade their tiny apartment in the heart of the Big Apple for something more spacious. Their dreams apparently come true when real estate agent Harvey Fierstein steers them in the direction of a stunning Brooklyn brownstone with high ceilings, built-in shelves, three fireplaces, original stained glass windows, and hardwood floors. Even the price is right, but there’s a hitch: the upstairs of the duplex is occupied by an ancient Irish woman protected from eviction by rent control regulations.

The sweet little old lady is played with demented glee by octogenarian Eileen Essel, and one of the strengths of “Duplex” is that the aged actress is game for anything the screenplay throws at her, no matter how revolting or repugnant. As the story progresses, Nancy and Alex quickly realize that they have made a giant miscalculation in their decision to purchase their new dwelling: Essel’s Mrs. Connelly is beyond irritating. The old bat harangues and bedevils the whippersnappers with constant intrusions. She plays her TV at ear-splitting volume in the middle of the night. She cajoles Alex into taking her for groceries and prescriptions, interrupting his writing schedule even as a big deadline looms. She claims that rats have invaded her kitchen. And so on.

Larry Doyle and John Hamburg’s script, which takes a turn for the worse at the end of the second act, fails to make Mrs. Connelly nasty enough for the audience to believe that Alex and Nancy are ready, willing, and able to commit murder for the sake of their sanity. It is on this point that “Duplex” never really takes flight as a black comedy. Yes, it is hysterical to witness the myriad ways in which the irksome Mrs. Connelly shakes up her new landlords, but there is no emotional investment the audience is allowed to make that justifies, for example, the hiring of a hit man to exterminate the badgering neighbor.

Stiller and Barrymore try their best to keep up with the sprightly Essel, and for the most part, they deliver – in one outrageous sequence Alex deliberately gets infected with a harsh flu virus in the hopes that he can pass it along to Mrs. Connelly. In another, a plugged up sink leads to a spectacular display of vomiting that will either leave you rolling or retching. The inconsistency in the story’s tone, however, extends into the staging of the humor, and “Duplex” often resorts to broad slapstick when subtlety is required.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 9/29/03.

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