Alex (Ben Stiller) and Nancy (Drew Barrymore) are a young couple looking for their very first house. The two find a dream duplex in a relatively affordable section of Brooklyn, and eagerly buy the dwelling. The catch is that an elderly Irish woman named Mrs. Connelly (Eileen Essel, "Ali G Indahouse") lives on the rent-controlled second floor of the duplex, and she can't be kicked out. While the couple try to maintain their jobs, Mrs. Connelly's daily demands, quirks and chores soon drive the two to thoughts of playful removal, and eventually to homicide, in an effort to get the old bag out of their once beloved housing acquisition.
A black comedy with a dash of nasty, "Duplex" (IMDb listing) is perfectly suited to director Danny DeVito's aesthetic choices. He's cornered the market on stories of good people pushed into doing very bad things ("Throw Momma from the Train," "The War of the Roses"), and "Duplex" certainly doesn't challenge DeVito's creative muscles too strenuously. He's been down this road before, and it shows, but that doesn't necessarily translate into a bad film. "Duplex" is often very funny, delivering big laughs when it feels the desire to. It's also DeVito's most composed film of his career. A filmmaker who loves his camera tricks, DeVito keeps "Duplex" on a pretty tight leash, breaking out something as innocent as a Dutch angle only once. That's like an alcoholic saying he's only had one wine spritzer all day. This newfound restraint helps the picture's digestibility because the audience isn't put in the position of trying to soak up all the visuals while missing the comedic strokes. DeVito's last film, the broad misfire "Death to Smoochy," suffered from DeVito trying way too hard to make the film weird and funny. "Duplex" is quieter, but often just as weird and funny as a film like this is capable of becoming, and what a PG-13 will allow.
The interplay between Stiller, Barrymore and the elderly Essel is what makes "Duplex" hum perfectly at times. While the script gives the cast some incredible situations to deal with--including a barf scene that is admittedly crude, but entirely effective and hilarious--it's the cast that skillfully sells the triangle of comedy. Eileen Essel is the real star of the film, putting in a hearty performance surrounded by two noted comedians. She's very game to be thrown around and bear the brunt of the assorted silliness that DeVito delights putting her in. She comes out in the end as the perfect mix of vile old woman, yet harmless senior citizen. And how can you not love her Irish accent?
I'm less enthused by the film's final section, which feels like a roaring automobile with tires that have gone flat. DeVito has a difficult time finding the right note to end the film on, so "Duplex" ends up evaporating instead of snapping to a close. There's a twist to the tale that also has a hard time coming together. Regardless of the way it finishes, "Duplex" is an often funny movie, maybe even going so far as to become a cautionary tale for young couples looking to buy their first homes.
Filmfodder Grade: B