This review was updated on September 23.
There’s a direct line connecting Danny DeVito’s first stint behind the camera, “Throw Momma From the Train,” to his most recent, “Duplex”: Both films center on the desired elimination of troublesome old women. But somewhere along the way, the comedy turned from dark and playful to mean-spirited and sophomoric. A waste of the considerable appeal and comic talents of leads Ben Stiller and Drew Barrymore — who as producers have only themselves to blame — this numbing barrage of demolition humor scores only a modest laugh count. The star pairing should provide Miramax with some opening muscle, but longer-term prospects look less promising.
While it’s not as callous and misanthropic as DeVito’s last turn at directing, “Death to Smoochy,” there’s something sour about this comedy, scripted by Larry Doyle. Predictable save for a semi-clever final twist, the film strains to find amusement in the discomfort of its characters and the destruction of their property.
Opening animated sequence depicts young marrieds Alex (Stiller) and Nancy (Barrymore) as they brave the hostile Manhattan real estate market. Their prayers appear to have been answered when their persuasive realtor (Harvey Fierstein) shows them a spacious Brooklyn brownstone.
The sole drawback is Mrs. Connelly (Eileen Essell), a seemingly benign, elderly Irishwoman living in the rent-controlled apartment upstairs, whose poor health indicates her lease is about to expire. But when Alex and Nancy take up residence, they find that the frail oldster is full of pep.
With her television blaring all night, brass band rehearsals during the day and regular calls for help with chores and errands, Mrs. Connelly proves hard to ignore. Seemingly sweet yet subtly demanding and manipulative, she deprives the young couple of sleep and makes it impossible for Alex to complete his second novel, despite an editor (Swoosie Kurtz) with a rigid deadline.
As soft solutions and neighborly reasoning fail, Alex and Nancy become increasingly ruthless in their bid to expel the intrusive tenant. They encounter opposition not only in the crafty old bird but in a neighborhood cop (Robert Wisdom) convinced the couple are abusive perverts. When their elaborate attempts at sabotage backfire, Alex and Nancy decide to call in a professional hit man (James Remar). But Mrs. Connelly proves more resourceful than they expected.
No joke is too lowbrow or tired for Doyle’s script, from fart and vomit gags to double entendres built around diminutives of Richard (the name of Mrs. Connelly’s late husband and her pet parrot) to an embarrassing scatological rant from Alex in a restaurant. On top of this is a steady stream of that tired old staple, spunky-granny humor.
Nonetheless, there are occasional moments of sharply executed physical comedy and fine chemistry between the leads. Stiller, Barrymore and British stage-TV vet Essell all are likeable performers and make valiant attempts to keep the energy level aloft.
Production designer Robin Standefer, art director Mario Ventenilla and their team create a richly detailed environment for all the cartoonish chaos in the duplex’s heavy, wood-paneled interiors and the cluttered rooms of Mrs. Connelly’s flat. David Newman’s plucky, string-heavy score adds a lively comic flavor — a flavor unfortunately missing in the writing.