Reviewed by: Brett Willis
Starring: Drew Barrymore, Ben Stiller, Eileen Essel, Harvey Fierstein, Swoosie Kurtz, Maya Rudolph | Directed by: Danny DeVito | Produced by: Ben Stiller, Drew Barrymore, Stuart Cornfeld, Richard N. Gladstein, Nancy Juvonen, Meryl Poster | Written by: Larry Doyle, John Hamburg | Distributor: Miramax
I knew almost nothing about this film before seeing it. I wanted to be surprised, and I certainly was. It’s a laugh-out-loud comedy that turns very dark. I don’t really recommend it to anyone.
Alex and Nancy (Ben Stiller and Drew Barrymore), a happy two-income New York couple, are thinking about having a baby. They decide to move to a more spacious home, a Duplex. Due to rent control laws, the existing upstairs tenant cannot be relocated against her will. When showing the house, the realtor (Harvey Fierstein) leads Alex and Nancy to believe that the aged tenant, Mrs. Connelly (Eileen Essel) has one foot in the grave. But such is not the case.
Mrs. Connelly keeps Alex and Nancy awake at night by falling asleep herself with the TV blaring. She monopolizes their time with “simple” requests for help. She spies on them having sex, perhaps accidentally. She and a bunch of other old ladies from her church have band practice in her apartment. Is she just innocent and clueless, or manipulative?
Before long, Alex and Nancy are sleep-deprived and their jobs are in jeopardy. They have to do something. They try some low-level stunts, which don’t work. They try bribing Mrs. Connelly to move back to Ireland; but while discussing this possibility with them, she chokes on a piece of candy, and Alex and Nancy both fall under suspicion of sexual assault for performing CPR on her. It would seem there’s only one thing left to do: bump her off.
The hilarious and generally clean comedy “What About Bob?” was tainted by a sequence at the end involving one character trying to murder another, just because the other character annoyed him. In “Duplex” we have the same thing; but it pops up much earlier in the film, occurs repeatedly and becomes the main focus. This black comedy theme makes the film’s overall offensiveness greater than the sum of its parts. Sometimes we see a murder carried out, but it’s “only” a fantasy sequence of what someone WANTED to do. That Alex and Nancy’s amateurish attempts at murder not only fail, but end up bouncing back on themselves (see Psalm 7:15-16), doesn’t change the fact that this is no laughing matter.
There’s also quite a bit of sexual humor, humor based on hypocrisy and con-artistry, and sight gags such as one person throwing up in another person’s face. Since there are also many legitimately funny moments in the film, the viewer is often bait-and-switched into laughing at something that should be repulsive rather than funny.
There’s a subtle difference between this kind of dark-comedy and “Three Stooges,” “Home Alone,” or cartoonish violence. Alex and Nancy are the central characters, the “good guys.” The emphasis is not on the severity of the violence, but on what they’re explicitly trying to accomplish with it. They sit in a restaurant, laughingly confessing to each other the ways that each of them have dreamed of killing Mrs. Connelly. At the outset of the film, they were just ordinary folks like you and me. Now they can say “I’m an evil person,” and giggle about it.
The violence is tongue-in-cheek, not realistic. Most of the time the language is clean, but every now and then there’s a string of profanity like a machine-gun burst. There are one or two occurrences of f*, a flash of “the finger,” some occurrences of a* and s*, sexual slang and oaths.
While Mrs. Connelly is generally a sweet and proper old lady, she has a few outrageous or double-meaning lines. Alex and Nancy have one implied sex scene (no explicit nudity or activity visible); there are also scenes where they smooch in bed in anticipation of having sex, but eventually give up because the noise from upstairs breaks the mood. Several jokes revolve around Alex’s male organs: their nickname, a doctor examining them after an accident, etc.
A minor character (James Remar) is a hit man, but has a “respectable” cover job as a pornographer and hands out sample porno DVDs to Alex and Nancy along with his business card. Mrs. Connelly unexpectedly returns to her apartment while Alex is sabotaging her TV; Alex hides in her bathroom, and is trapped behind the shower curtain while Mrs. Connelly takes a bubble bath. Although it went over my head at the time, I’ve read other reviews since, and on looking back I agree that Mrs. Connelly was probably masturbating in the tub.
There are some redeeming qualities in Alex and Nancy’s behavior at the end; deep down, they instinctively know that murder is wrong, and they don’t want to go through with it after all. Also a couple of twists, which I didn’t see coming and which make for the “happiest” ending that could be salvaged from the plot. But by then, the imitative behavior damage has been done.
Watching this film won’t incite a well-adjusted person to commit murder, of course; but the real-life killings on the evening news may seem a little less tragic. I’m 53 years old and have seen a lifetime of movie violence, but this particular type of film still disturbs me.
Violence: Moderate | Profanity: Heavy | Sex/Nudity: HeavyYear of Release—2003
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