In his 1987 directorial debut "Throw Momma From the Train," Danny DeVito tapped one of the great, unheralded wellsprings of modern comedy: Matricide. As in the killing of mothers. Funny, funny stuff.
DeVito dips into roughly the same dark well in "Duplex," a rancorous black comedy about a pair of newly landed New Yorkers (Ben Stiller and Drew Barrymore) whose dream of domestic bliss is sabotaged by their troublesome elderly tenant (newcomer Eileen Essel). Driven to their wits’ end, they decide to murder her.
We asked East Valley real estate veteran Joe Porter, of Joe Porter Realty in Mesa, to do a property inspection on "Duplex."
Tribune: Joe, assume I were in the same situation as Stiller and Barrymore, and my upstairs tenant was blaring her TV late at night and making noise with her brass ensemble. Would I have any recourse?
Porter: Not to the extent that you could kill somebody. I think a lot of people in Arizona will appreciate their situation, though. In any multihousing unit, where you have noise pollution, it’s almost impossible to deal with.
Porter: Interestingly, in Arizona, "duplex" implies something different than it does back east. Here, it’s usually two family units side-by-side with a garage between. There, it’s a two-story dwelling.
Tribune: We also don’t have rent control.
Porter: That’s right. I’ve never seen rent control in Arizona. In essence, that gives the tenant ownership rights. You can’t summarily evict them.
Tribune: On the other hand, we shouldn’t give our readers the impression that this movie is in any way tethered to reality. Like the scene where the cop — who sympathizes with the old lady, naturally — makes them buy her a new television. That kind of thing always irks me.
Porter: Obviously, it’s a comical farce and didn’t make a lot of sense. Like "Arsenic and Old Lace," old ladies killing people off with elderberry wine.
Tribune: This movie also tries to be a satire — of yuppie materialism, I guess. But I found the satire extremely flat.
Porter: I agree. Drew Barrymore wasn’t very good. I thought she was smiling under her character all the time.
Tribune: Exactly right. She always has that surface layer of amusement, and it totally doesn’t fit this high-strung New Yorker she’s supposed to be playing.
Porter: And then the fantasy scenes of her throwing (Essel) down the stairs made it even more unbelievable.
Tribune: Is this movie guilty of elder-bashing?
Porter: Well, at first it appeared to be. But, of course, it turns out the elderly lady was the most sly of the group. I’m closer in age to the lady than the target audience, but I wasn’t offended.
Tribune: I didn’t think much of Ben Stiller, either, especially when he started doing his improvised freakout thing, which he seems to do in all of his movies. He’s been unfunny in movies before, but usually he’s playing a heroin addict.
Porter: Yeah, he’s fallen into a rut. Tribune: What would you give "Duplex," out of four stars? Porter: Can I ask what you gave it? Tribune: One-and-a-half. Porter: I’m gonna give it one-and-a-half, too. I think it will play to its target audience. There were a lot of "Home Alone"style laughs, like the vomit scene. But I think some people will be alienated by those things, like the vomit scene. I had to turn away.
Tribune: You see, I don’t think people will respond to it, even younger audiences. Despite the edgy premise, this is a really timid movie. It’s more like "What About Bob?" than "Throw Momma From the Train," because it presents us with a passive-aggressive culprit who pretends to be a victim. "What About Bob?" makes me want to blow my brains out, by the way.
Tribune: In closing, let me ask you: What’s your favorite all-time movie about real estate misadventure? I call it the "real estate hell" genre: "The Amityville Horror," "The Money Pit," you get the picture.
Porter: My favorite movie about real estate is that old one with Cary Grant and Myrna Loy: "Mr. Blanding Builds His Dream House." They’re in divorce by the end of it. It’s more subtle than this movie, but truer.