- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 25, 2003

“Duplex,” one of the leftover liabilities in the Miramax inventory, was probably envisioned as a Christmas sucker punch when the management felt confident enough to finance it. The plot culminates in a Christmas Eve domestic calamity, the final blow to hapless young landlords played by Ben Stiller and Drew Barrymore. Called Alex and Nancy, they have purchased a booby-trapped Brooklyn brownstone. The first floor provides them with ample living space, but the second floor, occupied by an elderly Irish widow, Mrs. Connelly (Eileen Essell), misrepresented by Realtor Harvey Fierstein as a fragile old party with one foot in the grave, proves a metaphorical graveyard for property-owning aspirations.

Mrs. Connelly is a rent-controlled fixture who pays only $88 a month. The newcomers had counted on being able, ere long, to realize a profit on future tenants. The tenacity — and sneaky hostility — of Mrs. Connelly systematically mocks and pulverizes their hopes, ultimately driving Alex (a novelist who works at home) and Nancy (a magazine editor who works in Manhattan for a fussbudget played by Wallace Shawn) to entertain fantasies and then conspiracies of murder. They end up battered and humiliated each step of the way, resembling cartoon predators who can never outmaneuver their prey.

This scenario, directed with characteristic aggressive indiscretion by Danny DeVito, was probably overrated by everyone involved as a clever switch on one of the great Alec Guinness comedies, “The Ladykillers.” It was realized with an exceptional blend of gusto and finesse by director Alexander Mackendrick and also blessed with a genuinely clever script by William Rose and a fabulous cast of English character comedians. The 1957 prototype, currently threatened with a remake by the Coen brothers (Joel and Ethan), foiled an amusing gang of armored car thieves and eventual cutthroats, led by Mr. Guinness. Their serenely endearing nemesis was a widowed landlady named Mrs. Wilberforce, the role of a lifetime for Katie Johnson.

While planning a robbery, the crooks rent quarters in her strategically located home as a meeting place and hideaway. Counting on her to remain oblivious to their plans, they miscalculate and commit blunders that arouse her suspicions and offend her sense of Victorian hospitality and rectitude. The gang disintegrates while trying to decide what to do about the essentially harmless Mrs. Wilberforce. They vanish while wreaking havoc on each other, leaving their intended patsy with a peaceful home and an unexpected windfall.

I suppose it was inevitable that someone would get the bad idea of reversing the format of “The Ladykillers.” There were probably thousands who entertained the idea and then rejected it before Mr. DeVito and Miramax fell for the variation that discredits “Duplex.” The original movie sort of hovers over this maladroit copy in the same way that Mrs. Connelly hovers over Alex and Nancy, remaining impervious to any attempts to update or dislodge it as a model for civilized criminal satire.

The filmmakers have demonstrated that it’s boneheaded to transform a Mrs. Wilberforce into a Fagin. Their hand is so heavy that it’s difficult to pretend that any suspense accumulates around the question of who possesses the upper hand in this particular conflict. Mrs. Connelly’s contempt for the patsies repeatedly outweighs her superficial vulnerabilities and guileless poses. The game is pretty much a forfeit when we discover that she calls her late husband Big Dick and a pet macaw Little Dick.

A couple of slapstick set pieces are effective: Alex struggling to hide in Mrs. Connelly’s bathroom while she prepares to luxuriate in the tub; and a nocturnal clapping duel precipitated by the purchase of an audio device intended to dampen the sound in a second-floor television, which the old lady leaves blasting all night long.

Avoiding gross punishments for Alex and Nancy is asking too much of Mr. DeVito, who bottoms out with in-your-face deluges of dishwater from a backed-up kitchen sink and then vomit from a stomach-churning self-induced flu. I don’t know if it’s a logical descending step in their downfall, but the landlords decide that catching the flu and then infecting Mrs. Connelly might be the solution to their problem at one juncture. It’s unlikely that audiences will be as reckless. “Duplex” promises to arrive and depart in a quarantine wrapping that few will touch.


WHAT: “Duplex”

RATING: PG-13 (Frequent slapstick violence and vulgarity; occasional profanity and sexual vulgarity)

CREDITS: Directed by Danny DeVito. Written by Larry Doyle. Cinematography by Anastas Michos. Production design by Robin Standefer. Music by David Newman

RUNNING TIME: 88 minutes


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