THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"DUPLEX"

Duplex stars Ben Stiller and Drew Barrymore as Alex and Nancy, a young couple trying to buy their first home. He’s a writer striving to finish his second book; she works on the layout team of a New York magazine. Most of the places they look at are too expensive. Then their realtor (Harvey Fierstein) takes them to Brooklyn to look at a beautiful old brownstone. The place is everything Alex and Nancy could wish for – it even has a nook he can use as a writing area. They fall in love with the home almost immediately. The only hitch is that there’s a tenant in the rent-controlled apartment upstairs, a little old lady named Mrs. Connelly (Eileen Essell). She seems sweet enough – plus she’s in poor health – so the couple decides not to sweat it too much. They buy the place, figuring that when poor Mrs. Connelly dies they simply won’t rent out the apartment again.

Trouble starts the moment they move in. Mrs. Connelly turns out to be a royal pain the butt, continually manipulating Alex into doing various chores. He takes her grocery shopping, he fixes her faucets, he carries out her garbage. The more he does for her, the more she expects him to do. At night, the old lady plays her TV too loudly; Alex and Nancy can’t get any sleep. Mrs. Connelly is a little creepy as well. When the young couple gets frisky in front of the fireplace, she stands outside a window to watch.

Eventually it all gets to be too much. Alex’s deadline is approaching and he still has most of the book to write. Nancy is getting sloppy at work from having too little sleep. All they want is to live quietly in their beautiful home, but they can’t because the old bag is banging on their door every five minutes. They also notice that the “sickly” Mrs. Connelly is suddenly looking pretty healthy. Wouldn’t it be nice, they wonder, if she just dropped dead? After several failed attempts to run Mrs. Connelly out of the apartment voluntarily, Alex and Nancy decide that they will just have to kill their tenant. They are not killers, however, and their attempts are not successful. When all other options have run out, they hire a hit man (James Remar) to do the job for them.

Duplex was directed by Danny DeVito, whose first movie (Throw Momma From the Train) was also about the attempts of two people to kill an obnoxious old woman. I guess he’s cornered the market on this plot. Duplex never reaches the manic comedic highs of that earlier movie, nor does it ever fully embrace the darkness like DeVito’s War of the Roses. A few of the bits in the movie fall flat, partly because DeVito seems to rush them. For a joke to really pay off, you have to take the time to set it up. In certain moments, the director almost seems in a hurry to deliver the payoff.

That said, I kind of liked the film. Here’s why: Drew Barrymore and Ben Stiller. These are two of my favorite actors. They’re great in comedies. They take the material and elevate it. Alex and Nancy are good people. They have just been pushed too far, and their senses have been lost. Because Barrymore and Stiller are so good at comedy, they bring the situation to life in a way other actors could not have done. (This same movie remade with, say, Ashton Kutcher and Tara Reid would have been a disaster.) For the film to work, the audience has to be able to identify with the characters, especially when they start hatching more diabolical plans. Barrymore and Stiller are easy to like, hard to hate. They carry you along on the ride.

Eileen Essell is also really good as Mrs. Connelly. She plays the role on several levels. In some ways, this seems like a kindly old lady. Other times, the woman is shrewdly manipulative. At one point, you have to wonder if she is truly evil. This is a really good, multi-layered comic performance. One of my favorite moments comes when Alex tries to solve the loud TV problem by breaking into Mrs. Connelly’s apartment and installing the Clapper. Mrs. Connelly’s response upon discovering what has happened is a perfect example of how her innocence and manipulation mix together.

When I was a graduate student, I lived in an apartment building with other students. The guy in the apartment directly below mine lived on a reversed schedule: he slept all day and stayed up all night. He liked to blast music at top volume around 3:00 AM. I was continually aroused from a sound sleep by the deafening sounds of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkeries.” (Those were real Apocalypse Now moments, let me tell you.) This bonehead’s total lack of common sense always stunned me; it never occurred to him that the other tenants in the building might actually be disturbed by loud music in the middle of the night. Did I ever harbor thoughts of killing the guy? No, but I certainly became desperate enough to get even when he ignored my kind pleas to be respectful of others. When I knew he was asleep, I would ring his doorbell and run. I would call him on the phone, hang up as soon he answered, then call again a few minutes after I heard him get back into bed. I would drop heavy objects onto the hardwood floor right above the location of his bed. These are not necessarily mature things to do, but desperation and maturity do not go hand in hand. I understand the desperation of dealing with a completely obnoxious neighbor. So does this movie. For whatever else it lacks, Duplex has its finger on something many of us can relate to, and it milks enough laughs of recognition to earn a moderate recommendation.

( out of four)


Duplex is rated PG-13 for sexual content, language and some violence. The running time is 1 hour and 28 minutes.

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