A vibrant New York couple--novelist Alex (Ben Stiller) and magazine layout artist Nancy (Drew Barrymore)--who are tired of their cramped quarters in Manhattan and long for a real home of their own. Miraculously they find what they think is the perfect duplex in Brooklyn; it has stained glass windows a cute little "writer's nook" for Alex--and an upstairs apartment that would give them extra space for a nursery. The only problem is the seemingly kindly old lady named Mrs. Connelly (Eileen Essell) currently living in the rent-controlled space and doesn't look to be vacating anytime soon. No matter. Alex and Nancy still love the place settling into their dream home and making do with their new neighbor. Yet "making do" turns into a full-fledged war as Alex and Nancy soon discover exactly what a problem Mrs. Connelly can be. As their blissful life begins to seriously fray around the edges the couple decides that they must get the needy irritating and noisy Mrs. Connelly out--or lose their sanity forever. Duplex isn't very complicated thank goodness but makes sure to spread a requisite amount of mean-spiritedness.
The key to making a simple story like this one work is populating it with the right actors and the comic pairing of Stiller and Barrymore suits the material to a tee. Stiller seems born to play the hapless everyday guy who manages to get himself into one mishap after another (There's Something About Mary Meet the Parents) and has a predisposition to having terrible things happen to his genitals. The "franks and beans" scene in Mary in which Stiller's character gets it caught in his zipper is only matched by the scene in Duplex where Nancy nearly shoots Alex's "frank" off. Poor guy. As the other half of the duo Barrymore proved to the movie world she was adept at comedy when she bumbled her way through Never Been Kissed and as Nancy gets her fair share of bumps bruises--and electrocutions. The best part of the film however is Essell as Mrs. Connelly. Where did they find this old bird? The actress has only done a few television gigs but obviously has a mean streak deep within. Mrs. Connelly comes off so sweetly dense and irritatingly innocent that when she finally shows her true colors as she fights off a hit man (oh yes it does come to that) you understand perfectly why the old coot has outlasted all the previous duplex owners.
Obviously director Danny DeVito's forte is painting the "black" in black comedy. Take for example some of his previous directorial efforts including Death to Smoochy about a disgruntled ex-children's talk show host who tries to off his replacement; The War of the Roses about a married couple who are literally at each other's throats in a fierce divorce; and Throw Momma from the Train about a dimwit who convinces a writer to kill his demonic mother. It's clear DeVito has the gift of dark humor and whether you are a fan of it or not at least you know it's being accomplished by a pro. Duplex's down-and-dirty moments of which there are plenty make you laugh but at the same time feel uncomfortable. And then there are some that make you want to just plain turn away especially the scene where Nancy throws up all over Alex's face. Honestly is that needed? Why prompt the gag reflex in your audience when they're watching your movie? Yuck. At least Duplex helps you forget the recently released dream home-turned-nightmare snoozer Cold Creek Manor.