[Screen It]

(2003) (Ben Stiller, Drew Barrymore) (PG-13)

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Comedy: A young couple buys a Brooklyn duplex with an elderly upstairs tenant only to have her turn their lives upside down by her sweet-natured but progressively annoying and meddlesome ways.
With the help of realtor Kenneth (HARVEY FIERSTEIN), Alex Rose (BEN STILLER) and Nancy Kendricks (DREW BARRYMORE) have just bought a large duplex in Brooklyn. They're happy with their purchase, and don't seem to mind that the place comes with an elderly tenant, Mrs. Connelly (EILEEN ESSELL), who lives in a rent-controlled apartment above them.

While Nancy heads off to work for her demanding boss, Herman (WALLACE SHAWN), Alex hopes to finish his second novel that's due to his publisher, Jean (SWOOSIE KURTZ), in just a few weeks. Yet, when he sets out to work in his new home office, Mrs. Connelly repeatedly shows up at the door, asking for various favors.

That results in the couple becoming increasingly annoyed by her chronic interruptions and loud TV volume at night that results in them getting no sleep. They eventually come to the breaking point and politely suggest that Mrs. Connelly move back to Ireland. She starts to agree, but then chokes on a candy, resulting in the couple having to perform CPR on her. When she comes to, however, she thinks they're molesting her and reports them to the police.

From that point on, and as they become increasingly frustrated by the situation but must contend with police officer Dan (ROBERT WISDOM) warily watching them, Alex and Nancy contemplate how to resolve their situation, including possibly hiring local hitman Chick (JAMES REMAR) to take care of their problem.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
Having previously lived in a dorm, apartment and townhouse respectively, I can attest to the trials and tribulation of living in close quarters. I'm not referring to roommates and/or significant others, however, but rather neighbors who immediately reside above, below or beside you.

If you've lived or currently dwell in such housing, you may be used to the ritual of pounding up, knocking sideways or stomping down to indicate your disapproval of excessive noise levels seeping or blasting into your living space.

Of course, if your neighbor is a seemingly sweet old lady who's in a rent-controlled apartment above you, one can't exactly hire a hitman to take care of the problem, or can you? That's the dilemma faced by Alex and Nancy in Danny DeVito's latest comedy, "Duplex."

Although it initially appears (from the ads and the beginning of the film) that it might be like the Tom Hanks comedy "The Money Pit," the film is far more like DeVito's own "Throw Momma From the Train." Eileen Essell's Mrs. Connelly character isn't as obnoxious as Anne Ramsey's from that picture, but the annoyed and frustrated results and subsequent murderous intentions are about the same.

As is the black comedy approach taken by DeVito ("Death to Smoochy," "The War of the Roses") and screenwriters Larry Doyle ("Looney Tunes: Back in Action") and John Hamburg ("Zoolander," "Meet the Parents") in telling their tale. When done just right, mean-spirited, violent and/or nasty comedy can be rather funny - in a dark and twisted way. At times, the cast and crew do manage to generate some decent laughs, but some script and motivation problems stymie some of the effort.

Much like those old Looney Tunes cartoons (and more recent films such as "Mouse Hunt") the fun is supposed to come from watching the protagonists get so worked up they take progressively drastic steps in trying to remedy their problem. Such actions naturally backfire and only make the situation that much worse.

In keeping in line with its predecessors and the nature of the genre, the film keeps ratcheting up the efforts and subsequent repercussions, eventually to the point of exaggeration. Of course, to make such material palatable, the characters and story must be drawn just right to prevent repetition, disbelief and/or overall meanness from overwhelming the effort and disengaging the viewer.

Some of the time, DeVito and company do just that. Yet, they also occasionally push the envelope with certain bits of material that may cause differing reactions among viewers. A problem that's never satisfyingly addressed concerns maintaining our attraction to the characters as they plot to murder an old woman simply for being a pest. Dark comedy always rides a fine line, but this one needs to be a bit clearer here to make the notion work.

As more of the veteran of similar roles, Ben Stiller ("Meet the Parents," "There's Something About Mary") gets more mileage out of playing his character than does his leading lady, Drew Barrymore ("Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," the "Charlie's Angels" films), who seems to be enjoying playing the part a bit too much and thus isn't entirely believable. Essell ("Ali G in da House"), though, is good as the gray-haired antagonist who may or may not purposefully be trying to irritate her new landlords.

It's in that respect, in relation to the above criticism, that I wish the script were a bit more imaginative and creative in how the characters act, react and interact with one another. While there's nothing terribly wrong with how things are presented, the setup and execution could have been sharper and smarter, resulting in more of a deliciously dark tale.

Basically just a three-person show, various recognizable performers including Harvey Fierstein ("Death to Smoochy," "Independence Day"), Swoosie Kurtz ("The Rules of Attraction," "Bubble Boy") and Wallace Shawn ("The Princess Bride," the "Toy Story" films) appear in smaller roles but don't add as much to the proceedings as I thought they would. Robert Wisdom ("Masked and Anonymous," "Mighty Joe Young"), however, proves to be a decent foil to the protagonists playing a cop who's wary of them.

I liked the surprise dual ending that wraps things up with an ironic twist, but the second part of that is unnecessary. In fact, it actually softens the overall bitter aura that runs rampant throughout much of the offering.

Pretty much what you'd expect considering the premise and the director's track record of black comedies, the picture has some quite funny moments and should satiate less discerning fans of the genre. Even so, it's not quite as sharp or wicked as I would have liked to have seen, resulting in an effort that doesn't feel like it fulfills its potential. "Duplex" rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed September 24, 2003 / Posted September 26, 2003

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