[Screen It]

(2005) (Anton Yelchin, Robin Williams) (PG-13)

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Drama: A teenage boy must deal with various unexpected developments in his life as he grows up in 1970s era Greenwich Village.
Tom Warshaw (DAVID DUCHOVNY) is an American artist living in contemporary Paris with his wife, Coralie (MAGALI AMADEI) and son, Odell (HAROLD CARTIER), who's just turning 13. That milestone brings back both good and bad memories for Tom and he decides to tell his family about the pivotal events of his past that changed him forever.

The year is 1973 and Tommy (ANTON YELCHIN) lives in New York's Greenwich Village with his mom (TÉA LEONI). She hasn't been the same since the death of Tommy's father and is now overly protective of him when not depressed. He goes to a Catholic school run by Rev. Duncan (FRANK LANGELLA) where he likes to hang out with the middle-aged and mentally challenged assistant custodian, Pappass (ROBIN WILLIAMS). The two are not only friends, but also coworkers employed by Simone (OLGA SOSNOVSKA) delivering meats from the corner butcher shop to various nearby homes.

Their friendship has become a bit strained of recent, however, since Pappas is jealous of Tommy's interest in girls, especially Melissa (ZELDA WILLIAMS). Unsure of how to act around her, Tommy finds an unlikely mentor in Lady Bernadette (ERYKAH BADU), a prostitute imprisoned in the Village's House of Detention. Only able to see him via a mirror she holds out the window, Bernadette gives Tommy all sorts of advice about his life and relationship with others in it. When an unexpected tragedy then strikes, Tommy must figure out what to do next, a decision that will affect the rest of his life.

OUR TAKE: 3.5 out of 10
Although actors play every type of person, character or being -- including God -- their portrayal of the mentally challenged is one of the more difficult and trickiest to pull off. That's because there's the worry of not getting the performance right, that they'll be perceived as only going after easy award nominations (since voters often seem to like such roles), or that they'll be used in a play, TV show or movie in a non-realistic manner not befitting them.

The latter is certainly the case in "House of D," actor David Duchovny's big screen writing and directorial debut. In the well-intentioned but seriously flawed drama, he plays a troubled adult who recounts his troubled youth to his wife and teenage son. And one of his friends that appears in the subsequent flashback tale is a middle-aged, mentally challenged janitor played by none other than Robin Williams ("One Hour Photo," "Mrs. Doubtfire").

I know, that sounds like trouble from the get-go, but the problem lies more so in the material surrounding and fueling the character than in just Williams' performance (although it has enough issues of its own that the actor probably shouldn't be clearing off any space on his awards shelf). Simply put, the issue at hand is that the character occasionally serves the purpose of being the young protagonist's mentor, sage and all around dispenser of wisdom and deep philosophical thought.

Had Pappass been mentally deranged (think Williams in "The Fisher King") rather than challenged (the new term, as his character points out, that's replaced "handicapped" and before that "retarded" in one of those insightful moments that just don't ring true), that might have worked. Unfortunately, such moments here consistently feel off, awkward and cloyingly mawkish.

In essence, he's playing a substitute character for the "magical negro" one that Hollywood still can't manage to shake (in terms of color and concept). To add insult to injury, such a character also exists in this film as a lady of the night imprisoned in Greenwich Village's former House of Detention (hence the title, and you thought the "D" stood for "Duchovny").

While Williams' character is just a random prophet, Erykah Badu's ("The Cider House Rules," "Blues Brothers 2000") hooker (who's several stories up in a "voice from above" location) is repeatedly sought out by the young and confused protagonist for answers to his many problems.

You see, he can't talk to his mom -- Téa Leoni ("Hollywood Ending," "Jurassic Park III") barely missing a beat moving from "Spanglish" to this film - because she's depressed over her husband's death (not to mention that Leoni is Duchovny's real-life wife and thus there's a weird wife-mother dynamic at play that could keep a shrink busy over many sessions).

The shame is that with all of that and more going on, the presence of a decent cast and some good individual moments, there's a lot of potential here. Alas, Duchovny -- who I like as an actor and previously showed he can direct with some of the "X-Files" episodes he helmed (and starred in) -- bungles much of it. The various elements don't always seamlessly mesh like they should and many of them thus feel episodic when not coming off as overly sentimental.

Throw in the unnecessary and not particularly successful, contemporary bookend sequences along with a bunch of voice-over narration, and the overall result is far from successful or satisfying. Yet, the performances from Anton Yelchin ("Hearts in Atlantis," "Along Came a Spider") as Duchovny's younger self and especially Zelda Williams (Robin's real-life daughter) are both good and engaging.

Their budding romance moments are handled adroitly and prove to be the film's most winning material. Other moments are nice as well, such as the protagonist working under his mom's bed as she sleeps (in something of a self-comforting but protection of her fashion) or the look on Leoni's face when her character realizes her boy is growing up and can't be with her all day.

All of which shows that Duchovny is capable of delivering the goods and makes one wonder if he simply was too close to the project to see its faults. Perhaps he should have had someone else write the script as that's from where the majority of the problems seem to stem. With only a smattering of moments and material that work as intended, the director will hopefully learn that it's okay to allow others entry into his "House of D" to make sure it's built as solidly as possible. The film rates as a 3.5 out of 10.

Reviewed March 16, 2005 / Posted April 29, 2005

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