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Plenty of room for plot twists

September 26, 2003|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

"Duplex" is a mildly diverting dark comedy, directed with amiable mischievousness by Danny DeVito and starring an appealing Ben Stiller and Drew Barrymore. Its drawback is that it's a one-joke affair, leading to a repetitiousness that makes the film seem overlong even at 87 minutes.

Life is good for Stiller's Alex and Barrymore's Nancy. Having made a promising debut, he is nearing completion of his second novel, and she has a good job at a magazine, but they need a bigger place. When a smooth real estate agent (Harvey Fierstein) shows them a handsome Victorian duplex on a picture-book Brooklyn street at a price they can just barely afford, they take the plunge. Naturally, the deal quickly proves too good to be true: Along with the fine woodwork and stained glass windows and three fireplaces comes an upstairs rent-controlled tenant who has been described by the agent as a sweet little old lady in failing health.

Slowly but surely, Eileen Essell's Mrs. Connelly emerges as, in Alex's words, "a mean, crafty old lady" who makes increasingly heavy demands on Alex's time as his deadline approaches and keeps the couple awake at nights with her loud TV. These are normal enough annoyances, but Alex and Nancy soon discover that Mrs. Connelly is not only shamelessly manipulative but incredibly devious, defeating their polite quest for peace and quiet at every turn. She is soon piling on the horrors, and writer Larry Doyle is ingenious at imagining fresh hell for Mrs. Connelly to dish out. Essell is beguiling and her Mrs. Connelly is amusingly characterized, but the film becomes predictable in that it is clear the old woman is going to pull one drastic stunt after another. What's more, not much else is going on to provide variety or contrast.

To be sure, the very nice and decent Alex and Nancy eventually begin thinking the unthinkable when it comes to taking drastic measures, and while the comedy becomes exceedingly exaggerated, "Duplex" does begin to build momentum toward a surprise finish.

"Duplex," which has a glossy sheen, allows Stiller to expand his range as a leading man, while it asks of Barrymore mainly to look pretty and be adorable. Essell, who took leave of her career to raise a family and didn't resume until the death of her husband, is a formidable actress of remarkable vigor and dexterity along with terrific comic skills. She is really the film's star, and in her DeVito has found a match in his gift for the outrageous, bringing to mind his success with the late Anne Ramsey of "Throw Momma From the Train." A fine supporting cast -- Wallace Shawn, Swoosie Kurtz, James Remar and Maya Rudolph, as well as Robert Wisdom as a neighborhood cop under Mrs. Connelly's spell -- doesn't have much to do. This is one "Duplex" that's best left until it comes up for rent.



MPAA rating: PG-13, for sexual content, language and some violence

Times guidelines: Suitable for older teens

Ben Stiller...Alex Rose

Drew Barrymore...Nancy Kendricks

Eileen Essell...Mrs. Connelly

Harvey Fierstein...Kenneth

Robert Wisdom...Officer Dan

A Miramax Films presentation of a Red Hour Films/Flower Films production. Director Danny DeVito. Producers Ben Stiller, Stuart Cornfeld, Jeremy Kramer, Nancy Juvonen, Drew Barrymore. Executive producers Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Meryl Poster, Jennifer Wachtell, Richard N. Gladstein, Alan C. Blomquist. Writer-co-producer Larry Doyle. Cinematographer Anastas Michos. Editors Lynzee Klingman, Greg Hayden. Music David Newman. Costumes Joseph G. Aulisi. Production designers Robin Standefer, Stephen Alesch. Art director Mario R. Ventenilla. Set designers Luis G. Hoyos, Daniel R. Jennings. Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes.

In general release.

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