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Wednesday, July 20, 2005

In N.Y. it's home, bitter home


Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Danny DeVito
Running time: 89 minutes
Language: English
Now showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Here's what a lot of movies prefer not to tell: In New York, it's a lot harder to find a nice apartment than it is to find true love. As my friend Stephanie says: "Boyfriends come and go, but once I get my hands on that Upper East Side beauty with high ceilings, built-in fireplace, tall windows, rent-controlled for under $1,800 a month, that's it. That apartment and me, we are forevah."

News photo
Ben Stiller and Drew Barrymore in "Duplex"

You gotta forgive Stephanie for getting so heated, the N.Y. real-estate situation seems to do that to people. And contrary to "Sex and the City," New Yorkers don't spend time talking and thinking about relationships. No, true New Yorkers talk about the Yankees while thinking about moving -- and it's almost not exaggerating to say people in the city will kill for an attractive domicile. After all, Stephanie and her friends read the obit pages to try to find that newly vacated, perfect find. How far are they from nailing voodoo dolls onto the walls?

Now finally, a movie that takes the real-estate issue by the horns, and exposes the obit-page combing, apartment-hunting monsters in us all. Directed by Danny DeVito (whose best work, "The War of the Roses," was also about the lengths that a well-behaved, bourgeois couple will go to for exclusive rights to a living room), this is a cynical and nasty little tale about . . . a duplex. In Japan, these are usually occupied by a married couple and their in-laws (which has its share of nasty tales, but that's a different movie).

In Brooklyn, where this story is set, married couple Nancy and Alex (Drew Barrymore and Ben Stiller) are forced to share the premises with Mrs. Connelly (Eileen Essel), who had been living there for ages and ages and can't be evicted because of rent-control laws. And boy, she turns out to be a little old lady from hell. She plays the television full blast at all hours, she makes incessant demands for help with her chores and when she's not putting her foot in it (she has a terrific knack for making the most awkward statements at the wrong times), she's peeking through the windows at the couples' lovemaking. Why did Nancy and Alex consent to buy such a property with their obviously hard-earned cash?

Because this is New York and when you find that 19th century brownstone in a nice neighborhood with tree-lined streets and a supermarket nearby, you hang onto it till your knuckles turn white. Like many others, Alex and Nancy had fled their Manhattan digs ("it's the size of a small child") to look for nirvana on the other side of the East River in Brooklyn -- the oily real-estate agent Kenneth (played with obvious relish by Harvey Fierstein) assures them that such a gem of a place will never come their way again and "it will go out of the market by Monday."

Ecstatic about becoming genuine homeowners and certain that Mrs. Connelly will depart for the Great Beyond soon ("My guess is that she's between 95 and 105," says Nancy) the happy couple sign the papers. Nancy is already planning to convert Mrs. Connelly's space into a playroom for their children, once they start having some.

And the apartment: It's a creamy dream by any standard with three fireplaces, stained-glass windows -- an oak-paneled writer's "nook."

This place seems to have it all. But from day one Alex finds it impossible to work (he's a writer working on his second novel) since Mrs. Connelly keeps pestering him and when Nancy comes home from work (she's an editor for a fashion magazine) she finds him zonked out on their bed, exhausted. Soon, irritation turns to thoughts of homicide and Alex cruises the subway and stands next to sick people in the hope of picking up a killer flu bug so that can he sneeze on some popcorn and present it to Mrs. Connelly.

Yes, in true DeVito style, the gags are all physical. Or shall we say, oral. Mrs. C. likes to pre-chew the food she feeds to her pet macaw named "Little Dick" and at one point some of it lands in Alex's eye. Another time she passes out on the floor and a panicked Nancy orders Alex to do some mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. His expression as he does the deed is a marvel to see -- suffice to say, if the word "yuck" could somehow turn into a human face this will be it. Later, the cops come around and Alex is accused of sexual molestation.

As the story progresses, DeVito and writer Larry Doyle (of "The Simpsons" fame) turn up the dials on the slapstick (read: flatulence jokes) and the humor (mostly aimed at the already much-tried Alex) is always borderline puke-provoking. You sympathize with Alex and Nancy, you do! But deep down, you're feeling a malevolent satisfaction. Anyone with stained glass windows in New York deserves a little misery.

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