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Danny DeVito was brought in to direct Duplex as a replacement for Greg Mattola (The Daytrippers), but DeVito's sixth feature brings him full circle with his first, 1987's Throw Momma From The Train–a clear sign that he hasn't changed much in the interim. Both films center on a feckless plot to wipe out an unexpectedly keen and resourceful old lady, and both lean heavily on comedy classics for inspiration, from Strangers On A Train to The Ladykillers to Arsenic And Old Lace. In these two films and others, including l989's The War Of The Roses and last year's calamitous Death To Smoochy, DeVito gravitates toward dark humor, but he still doesn't have the right sensibility for it, mainly because he doesn't trust his audience to get the joke. Rather than affecting a steely, understated deadpan, DeVito enacts black comedy through funny camera angles, wild chiaroscuro lighting effects, and thundering music cues, as if he were performing delicate surgery with a mallet instead of a scalpel. There's no such thing as a throwaway gag in a DeVito film, because the jokes have all been incessantly fussed over, as if he fundamentally lacks faith in the material. In Duplex, he doesn't get much help from mismatched stars Ben Stiller and Drew Barrymore, both of whom are too naturally exuberant for the cold-blooded roles of a young couple prepared to do anything to seize control of their dream house. After finding the perfect space in a refurbished Brooklyn duplex, Stiller and Barrymore decide to blow their nest egg on it, accepting the condition that they continue to rent the upstairs apartment to kindly old tenant Eileen Essel. Assured that Essel is on death's door, they're surprised to find her in excellent health, and chagrined when she doesn't leave them a moment's privacy, whether she's roping them into running errands with her or watching TV at full volume night and day. As the situation grows increasingly desperate, Stiller and Barrymore become more and more determined to evict her by any means necessary. In shooting for the obvious punchlines, DeVito and screenwriter Larry Doyle miss out on a more stinging satire about how young people see the elderly as burdens or barriers to inheritance. From the start, Stiller and Barrymore covet the upstairs space like vultures, but the film lets them off the hook by making Essel as psychotic in her own way as Anne Ramsey's snarling matron in Throw Momma From The Train. Like DeVito's other projects, Duplex looks and sounds like a black comedy, but by the time he reaches the cutesy, nonsensical ending, he's lost the will to follow through on it.


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