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.
Cold Creek Manor starts out setting the mood for an eerie thriller. Having had enough of the hustle-bustle of New York life the Tilsons-- a documentary filmmaker Cooper (Dennis Quaid) his corporate exec wife Leah (Sharon Stone) and their two kids--seek the quiet serenity of the countryside and buy a repossessed dilapidated manor with intentions of fixing it up. They also inherit the previous owner's personal things which include pornographic photos ominous press clippings and some nasty looking farming tools hanging on the wall. You'd think that would be the first clue things aren't quite right but Cooper finds the stuff fascinating and decides to make a documentary about the place--not realizing the danger which lurks around the corner. Up pops Dale Massie (Stephen Dorff) a mean-as-a-snake redneck just out of prison whose looking to come home to the house that's been in his family for generations except the house has strangers living in it. He doesn't take too kindly to that fact and nor do the rest of the townsfolk who rally around him. The volatile ex-con tries everything possible to get the Tilsons out--as well as keep them from finding out the grisly truth about what happened in the manor--but instead of getting scarier the film falls apart. Ultimately what could potentially been a real frightfest simply denigrates into another typical good guy-bad guy showdown.
Cold Creek Manor's cast do what they can with formulaic characters. Quaid hot off a career jump with last year's gems The Rookie and Far from Heaven handles Cooper with the requisite amount of citified savvy an urban hipster adjusting to country living who is saddled with protecting his family from a raging lunatic while as his wife Stone basically sleepwalks through most of the movie with phoned-in screams and scared looks. It's a shame the talented actress decided to get back into the swing of moviemaking with such a dull part (her last movie was 2000's Beautiful Joe). Dorff (feardotcom) on the other hand gets to chew his way through the film as the over-the-top Dale. There's really no question of who the villain is when Dale comes on the screen all sweaty and menacing flexing his pecs with a wild look in his eyes and Dorff plays it full-tilt with not a subtle bone in his body. Juliette Lewis makes an appearance as Dale's trailer-trash girlfriend who sticks up for him even after he gives her a bloody nose in public (why you never really know). Yet the only genuine standout worth mentioning is Kristen Stewart who did such a great job as Jodie Foster's daughter in Panic Room. Stewart plays Tilson's sullen teenage daughter Kristen able to convey to Dale with just a scowl that she knows he's trouble. The young actress could be one to look out for.
With such a promising start Cold Creek Manor could have been a real nail-biter; instead the film is rife with missed opportunities. Screenwriter Richard Jefferies and director Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas) choose to go the typical thriller route rather than build the suspense on the more intriguing aspects of the story namely the house and the secrets it hides. Instead Figgis first concentrates on Cooper and how he has to prove to everyone including his wife why he doesn't trust the seemingly helpful Dale. Then Figgis turns to Dale who is so obviously a psychopath it's hard to understand why anyone would buy him as a normal guy. Cold Creek is reminiscent of the 1990 thriller Pacific Heights about a couple who rents out part of their dream house to a sociopath who ruins their lives. Far from a classic Heights still holds up as a scary thriller--although you always know who the villain is you are nonetheless terrified wondering when and how his clever deadly tactics will strike next. In Cold Creek the enemy is too visible too recognizable and has little method to his madness. The final confrontation is so overdone--Dale chasing Cooper and Leah around the house one of those menacing farm tools in hand while a storm rages outside-- that you feel cheated.