review by Gregory Avery, 3 October 2003

Oh, yeah, I've had crazy neighbors. Shortly before I relocated eight years ago, I had one guy move into the apartment next to mine. Single, no furniture. When anyone came to the door, he just shouted, without opening the door, "GO-'WAY!" He worked some really strange shift at some job, so that, at midnight, on weekdays, without fail, when the rest of the apartment block was just getting to sleep, he would stomp up the stairs and go CLOMP-CLOMP-CLOMP across the landing to his front door. Always the same way. One neighbor, who worked as a registered nurse, changed one apartment over to get away from it. When the guy cooked, he'd get something out of his cabinets and always slammed the cabinet door shut; he kept this up once for an hour and a half, steady. When he once broke-up with someone, he put the soundtrack for The Bodyguard on his CD player, played Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You", put it on "repeat", then started singing along with it. At ten o'clock at night. The limit, though, came when one girlfriend suddenly started emitting these blood-curdling screams -- and I mean screams -- from inside his apartment one night. I didn't know what was going on, but it didn't sound good, and it occasioned me to call both my landlords and 911. So, yeah, I've had crazy neighbors.

Duplex is not as annoying as having to listen to Whitney Houston all night, and while Danny DeVito hasn't entirely lost his directoral touch, this new picture starts out as if it's going to be a black comedy, then ends up homogenizing itself into nothingness. Ben Stiller and Drew Barrymore play a couple who purchase a Brooklyn brownstone that already comes with an upstairs tenant, a sweet little old button-eyed Irish woman (Eileen Essell) who then proceeds to drive them crazy with distractions, until they get to the point where they'll do anything to get rid of her. Larry Doyle's original screenplay does not match the methodical approach of DeVito's directoral style -- some of the humor is dated (jokes about Riverdance and the Bronx?), a lot of the jokes fall over flat, like upright garden stones set in wet earth. Is the little old lady entirely innocent, or is she craftier than she seems? (My first thought was, she's trying to get rid of them while they're trying to get her to move out.) The movie even reverses itself on that point -- the matter seems to be resolved in a concluding scene, but there then follows a badly tacked-on bit that tries to make us believe something else entirely was going on. (As if the filmmakers were terrified they were going to produce something that wasn't going to please everyone. That's why independent films get made.)

Harvey Fierstein, bless-'im, contributes a deftly-turned appearance as the real estate agent who handles the selling of the brownstone to our heroes. Stiller and Barrymore (both credited with helping to produce the film) work well together, and they go through virtual acrobatics trying to get their roles to work, and they at least remain appealing throughout. Essell, a long-time British stage and T.V actress, manages to find a way to play some of the more undignified moments she's asked to do, but the film wreaks her character's arc, in that we never get a definite idea what to make of her and we're left flummoxed by the would-be resolution tacked on to the end, so we just give-up. We did not feel that way about Anne Ramsey's elderly terror in Throw Momma from the Train, that's for sure. The film also looks like it's been through some last-minute-desperation recutting, and some of the cinematography is surprisingly poor. I think Danny DeVito has at least one good black comedy film in him that he could give us -- think back to the way he said "I could squash her like a grape!" in Ruthless People, or to most of The War of the Roses, the second film he directed -- and he's one of the only people in Hollywood who is both interested in working in this vein and has a feel for it. But, given this picture and the reaction to his previous film, the children’s-show satire Death to Smoochy (which nonetheless had a brilliant performance by Edward Norton in it), I hope he hasn't run out of rope or the opportunity to do so.

Directed by:
Danny DeVito

Ben Stiller
Drew Barrymore
Eileen Essell
Justin Theroux
Robert Wisdom
Harvey Fierstein
James Remar
Wallace Shawn
Swoozie Kurtz

Written by:
Larry Doyle

PG-13 - Parents
Strongly Cautioned.
Some material may
be inappropriate for
children under 13.







www.nitrateonline.com  Copyright © 1996-2005 by Nitrate Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.