DUPLEX — ** — Ben Stiller, Drew Barrymore, Eileen Essel, Harvey Fierstein, James Remar, Justin Theroux, Wallace Shawn, Swoosie Kurtz; rated PG-13 (violence, vulgarity, profanity, brief sex); see "Playing at local movie theaters" for theater listings.
"Duplex" plays out like a greatest-hits medley of films by its director, Danny DeVito. Which might not be so bad if he had a full body of films to draw from, rather than just a handful.
Frankly, DeVito did most of this material better the first time around — especially in 1987's "Throw Momma from the Train," which this sporadically funny dark comedy resembles.
That's not to say that "Duplex" doesn't have some funny stuff, but most of it comes in the first half. The second half is so desperately unfunny that you might start to forget why you were laughing earlier on.
Ben Stiller and Drew Barrymore star as Alex and Nancy, a young married couple trying to find their dream home. They're both working writers — he's a novelist, she's a magazine writer — so they're on a limited budget. However, they think they've found just the place in a Brooklyn duplex. The catch is, there's a tenant in the upper apartment, Mrs. Connelly (Eileen Essel), a seemingly sweet old widow.
At first, Mrs. Connelly is only a minor annoyance to Alex and Nancy, as she watches television programs at a nearly deafening level. But then things get worse, as she constantly interrupts Alex's writing sessions and even costs Nancy her job. Then it becomes of contest between the couple and the renter, to which will leave first.
As you can probably tell by the previews, the film turns considerably darker in the second half. However, it's far more mean-spirited and vulgar than it appears — unpleasantly so.
Speaking of retread material, Stiller is again playing the regular Joe who's been pushed too far. And he and Barrymore don't make a very believable couple. Actually, they look pretty uncomfortable together.
"Duplex" is rated PG-13 for violence (slapstick, as well as some less-comic life-and-death struggles), crude sexual humor, references and innuendo, scattered use of strong profanity and a brief sex scene (done for laughs). Running time: 89 minutes.