A year after its underwhelming American release, Duplex limped without fanfare into only two Australian suburban multiplexes.
This is puzzling given the star power involved: Ben Stiller and Drew Barrymore in front of the camera, Danny DeVito behind it. And the script is by Larry Doyle, who wrote Joe Dante’s intriguing (if disappointing) Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003).
A decade and a half after his promising beginnings with Throw Momma from the Train (1987) and especially The War of the Roses (1989), most of DeVito’s blackly comic films register as little-seen oddities. In Australia, Duplex followed his previous film, Death to Smoochy (2002), into video-shop oblivion. Violence and mortality frequently figure in his top-level interests as an auteur.
In Duplex, Alex (Stiller) and Nancy (Barrymore) are a couple who find a charming and cheap Brooklyn duplex. This lodging comes with only one, seemingly temporary catch: a very old tenant, Mrs Connelly (Eileen Essell), surely not long for this world. But she becomes an unwelcome obstruction in the way of the couple’s future.
DeVito, with his unfailing sense for what makes viewers uneasy, hits upon a theme that typically unleashes the worst instincts underlying Western civilisation – namely, anxieties about real estate.
The avidity with which these anti-heroes pursue their American Dream is matched only by the extent of the devastation they cause and must duly suffer themselves. In a way, it is a salutary antidote to all the Better Homes and Gardens-style programs that now flood our televisions.
In a movie like this, where DeVito does not demand empathy for anybody (we are all venal animals), you simply wait for the house to fall apart spectacularly.
MORE DeVito: Hoffa
© Adrian Martin June 2004