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(2003) ** 1/2 Pg-13
90 min. Miramax. Director: Danny DeVito. Cast: Ben Stiller, Drew Barrymore, Eileen Essell, Harvey Fierstein, Justin Theroux.

When Hollywood flirts with bad-natured black comedy, Danny DeVito frequently takes the directorial reins. The early comedic glories of Throw Momma From the Train and the delicious The War of the Roses mellowed into a kid's movie--albeit a Roald Dahl adaptation (Matilda)--and last year's frustratingly awkward misfire Death to Smoochy. Taking Larry Doyle's script for Duplex in hand, DeVito takes a more assured step in the right direction.

Simple but smooth, Duplex is essentially a three-character pressure cooker pitting youngish couple Alex and Nancy (Ben Stiller and Drew Barrymore) against an elderly "freak of nature" named Mrs. Connelly (Eileen Essel). After pining for a just-right home, New Yorkers Alex and Nancy allow themselves to drift out to Brooklyn, where they find a beautiful and quaint duplex. Their real estate agent (Harvey Fierstein) paints the rent-controlled old biddy as a harmless and temporary obstacle to the couple's plans to convert the upstairs into a nursery. In the short term, they reason, Alex can stop trying to write his novels at Starbucks, and magazine staffer Nancy can set to work decorating their perfect home.

Ruefully, Alex and Nancy discover Connelly's true bipolar nature: one minute, she's sensitive and kindly, the next she's a demanding neighborly nightmare, backseat-driving the lovers to distraction with chores and creepy complications. Playfully employing a sly David Newman score, DeVito brings expert rhythm to each scene's lobs and smashes; the initial sitdown depicts a captive Alex chewing on the old woman's expired french onion dip and the spouses' pricelessly subtle mental calculation of Connelly's purported age. Barrymore holds up her end, but Stiller nails each hyper-reactive expression while Essel fully embodies and even convincingly grounds a preposterous high-wire act of a character.

The script by Doyle (a former writer for The Simpsons) overreaches at times, with escalatingly broad gags involving a speargun, vomit, and a hefty last-minute twist. Despite its mostly telegraphed calamities, Duplex succeeded in getting a chuckle-worthy rise out of me by pushing its initially likeable leads over the sociopathic brink. Admittedly, their leap from good to evil lacks the credible boldness of earlier models like The Ladykillers. In that soon-to-be-remade British film, the leading characters were pitiably funny but painstakingly, irredeemably immoral. DeVito's larky toss-off has it every which way but loose, yet resides on the fair side of the Hollywood average by virtue of its workmanlike nastiness.

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