In House of D, Frank Langella's priest/teacher drones the Biblical tale of Lot's wife, who turned into a pillar of salt for looking back longingly toward her possessions. David Duchovny's screenplay consistently makes the case that looking back longingly can be redemptive, if it's a look of love shared by friends and family. That very upbeat affirmation is the ultimate destination of House of D, though the dark places along the way tend to be more compelling.
With his debut feature, writer-director-actor Duchovny misses a lot more than he hits. An overly schematic screenplay is the biggest of Duchovny's problems: House of D feels much more written than lived. Duchovny plays Tom, a morose American in Paris whose girlfriend demands to know why he's such a screw-up. The frame gives way to flashback, and we're in Greenwich Village, circa 1973. Here, young Tom (now played by Anton Yelchin of Hearts in Atlantis) lives with his chain-smoking mom (Tea Leoni) and deals with the trials of puberty.
Beside a crush on a classmate (Zelda Williams), Tom must troubleshoot for his best friend and meat-delivery-compadre Pappass, a mentally challenged man played by (everyone take a deep breath) Robin Williams. The lad must also learn to separate from his mother and become a man. Assisting Tom in these tasks is a prisoner at the neighborhood's Women's House of Detention. Erykah Badu plays this mentor who, trapped in her castle tower, yells down sassy advice. Before it's all over, Tom will become a man by facing set-'em-up, knock-'em-down challenges in familial, sexual, and moral arenas.
The sterling work of the cast, Williams and his daughter Zelda included, is made mostly irrelevant by the weaknesses of the script (neither the film nor the audience can handle the archetypal double-whammy of Williams's Holy Fool and Badu's sacrificial bestower of freedom). Yelchin is the exception, making a pivotal encounter with Badu's "Lady" wrenchingly credible, or touchingly fishing cigarette butts out of the toilet for maternal momentos. In another of the film's "scrapbook" moments worth saving, Duchovny mirrors this private moment when Tom's adult incarnation drops a cigarette butt into a toilet and freezes with recognition.
Indeed, Duchovny shows signs of wit and wisdom—the opening narration turns a nice metaphor about safecracking life, for example—but for every funny or gut-wrenching moment, three head-scratching ones are sure to follow, and the whole enterprise collapses completely in a prolonged, thuddingly obvious, sickly sweet epilogue. Were it not for this especially solipsistic anti-climax, House of D might have managed a passing grade.