You've seen the funny trailers and are so encouraged by Ben Stiller's presence that you're certain Duplex will prove itself to be a latter-day Meet the Parents.
I feel for you. I thought the same thing. But it's only a few short minutes into Duplex when you realize just how wrong you were. Two things clue you in to the lackluster experience to come. First is an animated pre-credits sequence that shows a cartoon Ben Stiller and Drew Barrymore haplessly looking for a home. One knee-slapper vignette even puts them in a shack in the Sahara desert! Man, that's funny!
The second item is in the credits themselves, a short phrase reading, "Directed by Danny DeVito."
Yes, the studio has gone to outrageous lengths to hide the fact that the Death to Smoochy director has been unleashed on us once again, and sadly he still can't even do anything worthwhile, despite the presence of comic genius Stiller and a script by Simpsons scribe Larry Doyle and Parents writer John Hamburg.
Then again, Doyle and Hamburg's script doesn't have a lot going for it, either. The plot is as simplistic as they come: Cute couple buys a Brooklyn duplex with an elderly upstairs neighbor (Eileen Essel). She at first seems sweet but later proves to be a psycho. It's The Money Pit meets Single White Female meets Driving Miss Daisy. That's a combination for disaster if ever I've seen one.
Alex (Stiller) is a novelist and Nancy (Barrymore) is a magazine editor (lots of wordsmithing going on in that family), and naturally they figure the perfect time to buy a new house is three weeks before Alex's next novel is due to the publisher. The house is a historic dream, but the upstairs tenant (paying $88 in rent each month), Mrs. Connelly (Essel), is pushing 100 and is obsessive in every way imaginable. She counts the grapes at the store (after shanghaiing Alex to accompany her), spots rats at every turn, and experiences all manner of mechanical problems in her apartment. To wit: She plays in a brass band! She commissions unauthorized repairs! She listens to TV really loud! This sends Alex and Nancy's lives into chaos as they try to please her while meeting their own job requirements, with results that are occasionally, mildly humorous. In the end, they plot to kill the old woman and reclaim her apartment for their own!
From Throw Momma from the Train to Smoochy, it seems DeVito can't make a film that doesn't involve a murder plot. And sadly it's the callous acts of planning for Mrs. Connelly's death that come off as the least amusing parts of the film. I'm a huge fan of gallows humor, but DeVito just doesn't seem to know what he's doing. Stiller and Barrymore are too sweet (though Drew looks like a grown-up for the first time in her career) to pull of the viciousness required. Ultimately the joke is stretched so thin it becomes boring well before the time when they hire a hitman to do the deed.
Duplex has a number of laugh-worthy moments, but they pop up after 10 minutes of baffling setup and provide 15 seconds of good times at a stretch. Sure, it's tons of fun to see Barrymore vomit all over Stiller's face, but why saddle that glorious moment inside 88 minutes of crappy movie?
Of final note: If you insist on seeing Duplex, the "surprise" ending is actually ruined by a few of the scenes in the trailers. Shame! Avert your gaze. (From the trailer, I mean.)
The usual behind-the-scenes stuff and a few deleted scenes round out the Duplex DVD.
Take the time to stop and smell the sewage.