‘Duplex’ not a slum but not a mansion

By Gus Bode

Starring:Ben Stiller, Drew Barrymore, Eileen Essel

2 gus heads out of 4

Watching a Ben Stiller movie is kind of like, well, meeting the parents. It can be funny. It can be nerve-wracking. However, it’s mostly just awkward.

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Usually, this is funny enough. Stiller has such a bizarre screen presence and such an odd inflection in his lines that it’s impossible to duplicate him and impossible not to empathize with him. He’s an all-around class act on the screen, and his movies can be hilarious in that awkward, embarrassing kind of way.

Except when the ball gets dropped.

Which, it seems, is the problem with “Duplex,” his new film that offers some real belly laughs but tends to get a little redundant when its superficial gag gets played out. Is this Stiller’s fault? Not really. He pulls off some vintage Stiller rants. No, the real ball-dropper here seems to be Danny DeVito, who in his “sit-behind-the-camera” directs with the same black humor that’s brought him hits (“War of the Roses”) and, on the other hand, weird little misses (“Death to Smoochy”).

DeVito has a distinctive brand of humor, but it’s so frenetic and so abrasive it borders on being offensive. Here, he uses it to set up a great premise. From there, he just hopes everything else will come together on its own. It doesn’t.

Not to say “Duplex” doesn’t have some wickedly funny moments. Stiller plays Alex, a young novelist trying to finish his newest book, and is hoping to move out of the small Manhattan apartment he shares with his wife, Nancy (Drew Barrymore). When a real estate agent (Harvey Fierstein) shows the couple a duplex in Brooklyn, everything seems to be great; the house has three fireplaces, a nice writing nook for Alex and an upstairs that could be one day used for children.

The catch? An 80-something-year-old woman named Mrs. Connelly (Eileen Essel) lives up the stairs, and although Alex and Nancy are banking she’ll eventually just keel over, she doesn’t. In fact, she proves to be resilient and supremely obnoxious, constantly sending Alex and Nancy out to run her errands and fix things in her home. Before long, after the couple has gotten sick of her loud TV and constant nagging, they decide to do something about it. They don’t bother with eviction. Their solution involves poison and fire – and hitmen.

It’s funny, but it never goes as far as you want it to. Stiller does his best to put on a good show, but so many parts of the film, particularly near the end, feel contrived, thrown together and passed through with little attention. The gag runs out. Barrymore, as usual, is cute, but she’s given so little to do that she seems to play more of the token wife than an actual character. And DeVito directs the humor with such a dark, heavy hand it occasionally feels a bit smothering.

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Plus, he never goes quite as far as you want him to. The murder fantasies don’t take over until well into the third act, and it would have been hilarious to watch all of this happen a bit earlier. Instead, we get a ho-hum comedy that is saved by the graces of its star. Stiller may not be a Carrey or a Williams, but he brings his own kind of game to the movies. It’s a shame this ball was dropped before he had a chance to hit a home run.

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