I don’t enjoy movies whose principal comedic device is frustration. I’m talking about films where the protagonist can’t get a break, nothing ever goes right, he keeps getting close to success and then keeps losing it. You need setbacks in a story, of course, but the reason you have setbacks is to make the eventual victory seem sweeter. If the payoff never comes, and all we see are hurdles, disasters and disappointment, then where’s the fun in that?
You will point out many very entertaining films whose central characters are losers, even ones whose protagonists NEVER succeed. I will counter that if the films were indeed good, then the protagonists were LOVABLE losers, and the setbacks were more funny to the audience than maddening. Chevy Chase’s character in the early “Vacation” films is a good example of that, as is Steve Martin in “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.” These are people we root for and sympathize with, and their problems are couched in humor.
“Duplex” gets it all wrong. Its protagonists, novelist Alex (Ben Stiller) and his magazine-designer wife Nancy (Drew Barrymore), are not especially likable, noteworthy or charismatic. They do not have any personality traits to speak of. And when misfortune befalls them, it is not funny misfortune; it is merely frustrating, bedeviling misfortune. All we can do is gnash our teeth and be as annoyed as they are. And again, where’s the fun in that?
Alex and Nancy are a young New York couple who buy a fantastic duplex in Brooklyn. It’s roomy and charming, and if the elderly tenant upstairs ever dies or moves out — she cannot be evicted nor her miniscule rent raised, due to rent-control laws — it can even be a source of profit.
In the meantime, however, they are stuck with that tenant. She is Mrs. Connelly (Eileen Essel), an elderly Irish widow who’s always making tea and being grandmotherly, except when she’s being cruel and abusive to her landlords. (She says her husband died in 1963 after 58 years of marriage. If this is true, and her marriage really did take place 98 years ago, then she is well over 110 now.) In true one-dimensional farce style, Mrs. Connelly plays her TV too loud every single night, has other old ladies over to play brass instruments on Saturdays, and is constantly pestering Alex — who’s trying to finish his novel on a tight deadline — to do menial little chores for her.
Alex and Nancy meet a hitman about a third of the way into the film, so we know they’ll resort to him eventually. Until then, they try various other methods of dealing with Mrs. Connelly, and then various methods of getting rid of her.
But the script, by Larry Doyle and John Hamburg, is just one frustration after another. So many problems could be solved by Alex and Nancy simply speaking up. They ask Mrs. Connelly to turn down her TV once, but never ask her a second time, or third time, or as many times as it takes. When she accuses Alex of molesting her, he stammers and stutters instead of telling the cop he was giving her CPR, which is the truth. When she’s astonished to see him holding a pair of her underwear, he fails to point out they were in the trash bag she asked him to take out, which subsequently broke on the stairs. When someone doesn’t believe him about the fate of his laptop computer, he neglects to simply SHOW her the physical evidence of its unfortunate demise. And so on. You want to take all these characters — the good guys AND the bad guys — and throttle some sense into them. And where’s the fun in that?
Ben Stiller, who has a gift for comedy, seems to be trying his best. He works a few lines into mild chuckles, doing more with less than many actors could. Drew Barrymore, who does not have a gift for anything, as far as I can tell, flits along in her usual fashion.
Danny DeVito, who has a thing for dark comedies (this is essentially his “Throw Momma from the Train” all over again), directs this one without tact or subtlety, like a live-action cartoon. Nothing is plausible, and no one is likable. It does not build or flow; it lurches. It isn’t funny, because it isn’t believable. This isn’t entertainment. This is an irritant.
D (1 hr., 28 min.; )