Danny DeVito’s directing style continues to be the cinematic manifestation of his comedic persona: loud, brash, without an ounce of nuance. Last year, he assaulted audiences with “Death to Smoochy,” starring Robin Williams as an evil, alcoholic kids’ show star. (“Matilda,” his 1996 children’s movie, was a rare exception.)
Now with “Duplex,” he’s essentially remade his 1987 film, “Throw Momma From the Train,” by throwing Ben Stiller and Drew Barrymore together in a Brooklyn brownstone with an elderly upstairs neighbor who seems sweet and harmless at first but grows pathologically shrill and demanding.
Plans to force her out of the apartment eventually evolve into a murder plot, with plenty of scatological sight gags along the way. An early, shiver-inducing image of 90-something Mrs. Connelly (Eileen Essell) in the bathtub ultimately gives way to husband and wife Alex and Nancy (Stiller and Barrymore) being covered in snot, vomit, regurgitated chocolate and rancid turkey remains.
The logic must be that the grosser the humor gets, the funnier it gets.
The main problem in the script from first-time screenwriter Larry Doyle (whose TV credits include “Beavis and Butt-head” and “The Simpsons”) and John Hamburg (“Meet the Parents” and “Zoolander”) is far more fundamental: Even though “Duplex” is supposed to be a broad comedy, it’s hard to sympathize with a couple of yuppies whose main motivation for murder is expanding their square footage.
Alex and Nancy grow increasingly weary of Mrs. Connelly’s demands for repairs and chores during the day. Then at night, she keeps them awake by blaring her television — and she watches everything from “Hawaii Five-O” to “South Park.” (This sets up the funniest gag in the whole movie, though, in which Alex and Mrs. Connelly engage in a late-night duel of turning the TV on and off with “The Clapper.”)
But long before that — when their smarmy real estate agent (Harvey Fierstein) first showed them the duplex — they fantasized about how great it would be to get the old bag out of her rent-controlled top-floor digs so that they could use the space as a potential nursery.
And we’re supposed to root for these people to win?
Essell, an 81-year-old British TV veteran making her first film appearance, finds subtle ways to keep us guessing; we don’t know until the end whether she’s tormenting Alex and Nancy because she’s deviously crafty, or she’s merely manipulative in a passive-aggressive manner.
But Stiller’s stellar comic timing and Barrymore’s innate likability can’t save this film.