Remember the zany black comedies of yesteryear, like Arsenic and Old Lace or the whole Thin Man series, where murder and mayhem and corpses were funny because sophisticated, urbane people had to find some way to deal with death without mussing their clothes?
Well, famously short director Danny DeVito wanted to bring back some of that old-time magic by pairing the intermittently funny Ben Stiller with the highly personable Drew Barrymore as a young couple who hilariously buy a house in the comedic borough of Brooklyn, N.Y. Funnily enough, the house is already occupied ... by a zany old lady who drives them nuts!
If that's not enough to tickle your funny bone, well, there are nearly a half-dozen jokes in the film as well! That's a potential laugh rate of one every 15 minutes, assuming all of the jokes are funny. And they're not! No sir! So don't worry about the deleterious effects of loss of oxygen due to excessive laughter. Duplex kindly gives you, the audience, room to breathe a bit between your guffaws and yucks!
Nor is the film devoid of plot, character or action! No! Indeed! No! The tale begins when Alex Rose (Stiller) and Nancy Kendricks (Barrymore) decide that their time as apartment dwellers must draw to a riotously funny conclusion. Thus, they purchase their first house, a duplex (note the title of the film!). Sadly, an elderly woman who owns a parrot lives in an apartment in the house, and Rose and Kendricks (who, though married, keep their separate names for greater comic effect) are forbidden by law from evicting her.
While this law looms large on their civic consciences, strangely, they seem unaffected by the law that dictates that murdering a fellow human being is strictly, and humorously, forbidden. Thus, they decide that the zaniest course of action in clearing their attic of unwanted humanity would be to comically murder the elderly dame, hilariously removing her from the land of the living to that of the dead and departed.
Strangely, their plans for humorous homicide are not well regarded by the local constabulary, and, in particular, by one Officer Dan (Robert Wisdom), who seems hell-bent on helping poor, infirm Mrs. Connelly to stay alive in the face of repeated attempts on her hilarious life. Thus, their plans are thwarted in a most comic fashion, involving not only Drew Barrymore vomiting on Ben Stiller's face, but also someone eating hot dogs that have been pre-chewed by a parrot.
So, unable to murder, Alex and Nancy decide to re-sell the house, but their real estate agent (Harvey Fierstein, breaking type by playing a gay man) tells them they should not sell, as they won't get what they paid for it, because they overpaid, in spite of the fact that he himself sold it to them, and encouraged them to buy it at the inflated price.
This is strange, because the real estate agent makes money on commissions, so discouraging people from selling their homes is hardly what he should be doing, which brings up the one and only problem with this otherwise perfectly restful film: Ultimately, in the end, a secret plot is revealed, but the plotters of this plot act against their own interests repeatedly, and thus the ending, which I am unable to reveal due to my oath as a film critic (the spirit of Pauline Kael forcibly tongue-kisses those who break the oath), wherein the plot is revealed, makes little, if any, sense.
It's all too bad, really, because there's a waste of talent here. Ben Stiller has on occasion been hilarious in a non-ironic sense of the term "hilarious." He probably does the best Bono impression of anyone ever, but sadly, there's little call for Bono impressions in today's teen-oriented cinema. Drew Barrymore, too, is not talentless, and is at least very likable, so casting her as a venal murderess is a bit of a miscue. And Robert Wisdom, who plays Officer Dan, is actually one of the best dramatic actors around, and thus is well utilized in this slapstick comedy. Not.
Ultimately, with Stiller and Barrymore incessantly falling down or getting electrocuted or burned or shot by their own homicidal devices, Duplex pretty much copies the plot of every Road Runner cartoon. So, before deciding to dump your hard-earned (or ruthlessly pilfered) cash on this one, I'd advise you to see if you can sit through nearly two hours of the hapless Coyote making small mushroom clouds as he caroms off rock faces and into a canyons. Now imagine Drew Barrymore throwing up on the Coyote's face. If that turns you on, and your ISP blocks out barrymorebarfingonstiller.com, then your only choice is to see Duplex. God bless you, really.