In his first stab at feature filmmaking, “House of D,” David Duchovny scores considerably higher as director than as screenwriter. Seriocomic fable of a grown man prompted by his son’s 13th birthday to revisit his own painful adolescence feels false and platitudinous — a calculated crowd-pleaser that, despite being an original story, plays like a poorly condensed novel with a scripter unable to make choices. Technically polished and intermittently touching and witty, this Lions Gate pickup looks destined for only brief theatrical residence before settling into its ultimate address on television.
Duchovny appears in the framing sequences that bookend the main coming-of-age story as Tom Warshaw, an American artist living in Paris with his French wife Coralie (Magali Amadei) and son Odell (Harold Cartier). Voiceover-heavy intro ruminates on how turning 13 opens a door to self-discovery, but Tom’s door closed at that age instead. Wanting to reveal more of himself to his wife and son, he returns home late on Odell’s birthday after much soul-searching and launches into the story of his youth.
Forced setup segues to New York City 1973, when Tommy (Anton Yelchin) lived in Greenwich Village with his mother (Tea Leoni), a nurse battling depression after her husband’s death from cancer. Tommy’s best friend is Pappas (Robin Williams), a mentally challenged school janitor with whom he operates a delivery service for a local butcher. Saving to buy a new bicycle, the two friends hide their earnings in a secret place outside the walls of the Women’s House of Detention.
When Tommy begins showing romantic interest in schoolmate Melissa (Zelda Williams, daughter of Robin), Pappas feels shut out, smashing a store window and stealing the coveted bicycle in a bid to win back his friend’s affections. Tommy turns increasingly for advice to a woman he knows only as Lady (Erykah Badu), incarcerated in the House of D, who doles out courtship and life lessons from her cell window while unsuccessfully pushing the boy to score her a bag of weed.
Tommy takes the fall for Pappas’ misdemeanor and is suspended from school, but the incident distances Melissa and pushes the boy’s fragile mother over the edge. His final words of guidance from Lady prompt Tommy to take drastic steps, erasing a past he’s forced to reassemble later as an adult.
Having previously written and directed episodes of “The X-Files,” Duchovny acquits himself well enough with the physical side of filmmaking, backed by a sharp creative team. Michael Chapman’s crisp lensing deftly captures the lazy feel of a New York neighborhood in summertime; production designer Lester Cohen and costumer Ellen Luter nail the early-’70s look without the usual overstated retro fuss; and composer Geoff Zanelli’s unintrusive score (exec produced by Hans Zimmer) is smoothly integrated with period hits to evoke the mood of the time.
But despite what appears to be a personal connection to the material (Duchovny grew up in the East Village), the writing pushes every pre-programmed emotional button imaginable. The story of love, friendship and the crushing encounter between youthful inexperience and harsh reality feels especially artificial in the final stretch when the adult Tom returns from Paris to laboriously reconnect with his past. The entire story is built on relationships, conflicts and resolutions that rarely ring true.
Yelchin (“Hearts in Atlantis”) gives the movie much of its limited charm in a performance with humor, sensitivity and spirited intelligence.
Wanting to have it every way possible in an irritatingly self-conscious turn that’s really just a series of untethered tics, Williams shifts between grinning idiocy, cute antics, humorous hipster mimicry and solemn Chauncey Gardiner-style innocent wisdom.
Leoni is saddled with a character given zero grounding in reality, but Badu’s seen-it-all sistah supplies some enjoyably tart moments, and Frank Langella puts a droll spin on the stern cleric principal of Tommy’s school.