Gentrification is hell in Duplex.

Reviews of the latest films.
Sept. 26 2003 4:38 PM

The Woman Upstairs

An old crone torments her neighbors in Duplex.

Too close for comfort
Too close for comfort

It's a funny coincidence that Under the Tuscan Sun and Duplex (Miramax) are coming out on the same day: They're both about real-estate dreams (and nightmares), and they both get under the skin of people like me, who have no appetite for pornography but an active fantasy life involving the real-estate pages of the New York Times Magazine. The opening of Duplex is a herky-jerky cartoon narrated by Danny DeVito (who also directed): It lays out the plight of a young, middle-class couple, struggling novelist Alex (Ben Stiller) and glossy-mag editor Nancy (Drew Barrymore), who enjoy city life but have neither the desire nor the money to raise a family in Manhattan. Along with many others, they find the Promised Land across the Brooklyn Bridge in the lovely neighborhood of late-19th-century brownstones designed by Frederick Law Olmsted: Park Slope. Or as I like to call it, home sweet home. (I gravitate to neighborhoods declared by one or another of the Hamill brothers as having been ruined by an influx of yuppies.)

Advertisement

The movie got me where I live, but I think that even non-Park Slope real-estate owners will have a blast at Duplex: It's one of the most unnerving slapstick extravaganzas I've ever seen. Alex and Nancy find a spacious brownstone: a paradise of fireplaces, dark wood, and stained-glass windows on a tree-lined block near the park—perfect for raising kids, perfect for writing, reading, cooking, making love on the thick throw-rug in front of the fire. … All together: Ahhhhhhhh. There is one catch, though: their upstairs rent-controlled tenant, Mrs. Connelly (Eileen Essell), a very old Irishwoman whose television blares all night over the couple's bedroom, who imposes on them incessantly, and who comes to assume a demonic importance in their lives and careers.

I groaned when I first heard this premise, which sounded like a slapstick version of the dimwitted tenant-from-hell thriller Pacific Heights (1990)—smug yucks for the landlord in us all. But the movie, written by former New York magazine editor and TheSimpsons writer Larry Doyle, plays subtle havoc with our sympathies. Alex and Nancy are attractive, likable, and largely good-hearted, but they're also annoyingly entitled. He has a fat chip on his shoulder over the failure of his first novel, and he seethes over the success of his buddy Coop (Justin Theroux), a best-selling mystery writer who churns out books in breezy days instead of torturous years. Nancy, meanwhile, fairly salivates at the prospect of getting her mitts into that upstairs space after the death of her tenant: She can't help herself from snapping pictures of the old woman's apartment whenever Mrs. Connelly is in another room.

It's a complicated dynamic, though: Mrs. Connelly is one of those insinuating passive-aggressives who would drive anyone to homicide. Her demands are sweetly hesitant and then, suddenly, bone-freezingly pointed, and she's apt to editorialize about Alex's habit of napping in the afternoons after her television has kept him awake most of the night. She's scattershot, a dodderer—until a well-aimed barb slices through the ether. You watch the 81-year-old Essell, a London-based stage actress and teacher, and think, "A star is born!" She has a magical non-rapport with Barrymore, who's all phony smiles, like a little girl pretending to be a grown-up, and Stiller—an intense, emotionally naked clown with the best slow burn in movies.

The movie keeps psychotically raising the stakes—not a surprise if you've seen any of DeVito's other malicious comedies, from Throw Momma From the Train (1987) to The War of the Roses (1989) to the recent Death to Smoochy (2002). The little imp must just love to see people driven out of their minds. I tend to find his style too whacking, but his timing here (and that of his editors, Lynzee Klingman and Greg Hayden) is right on the button, and the script's mixture of sympathy and satire keeps you off-guard. In the end, Mrs. Connelly is more than a slapstick impediment: She's both an avaricious monster and nature's revenge on our materialist dreams. She's Freddy Krueger for gentrifiers.

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can read his reviews in "Reel Time" and in "Movies." He can be contacted at slatemovies@slate.com.

TODAY IN SLATE

Justice Ginsburg’s Crucial Dissent in the Texas Voter ID Case

The Jarring Experience of Watching White Americans Speak Frankly About Race

How Facebook’s New Feature Could Come in Handy During a Disaster

The Most Ingenious Teaching Device Ever Invented

Sprawl, Decadence, and Environmental Ruin in Nevada

View From Chicago

You Should Be Able to Sell Your Kidney

Or at least trade it for something.

Space: The Next Generation

An All-Female Mission to Mars

As a NASA guinea pig, I verified that women would be cheaper to launch than men.

Terrorism, Immigration, and Ebola Are Combining Into a Supercluster of Anxiety

The Legal Loophole That Allows Microsoft to Seize Assets and Shut Down Companies

  News & Politics
Jurisprudence
Oct. 19 2014 1:05 PM Dawn Patrol Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s critically important 5 a.m. wake-up call on voting rights.
  Business
Business Insider
Oct. 19 2014 11:40 AM Pot-Infused Halloween Candy Is a Worry in Colorado
  Life
Outward
Oct. 17 2014 5:26 PM Judge Begrudgingly Strikes Down Wyoming’s Gay Marriage Ban
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 17 2014 4:23 PM A Former FBI Agent On Why It’s So Hard to Prosecute Gamergate Trolls
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Oct. 17 2014 1:33 PM What Happened at Slate This Week?  Senior editor David Haglund shares what intrigued him at the magazine. 
  Arts
Behold
Oct. 19 2014 4:33 PM Building Family Relationships in and out of Juvenile Detention Centers
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 17 2014 6:05 PM There Is No Better Use For Drones Than Star Wars Reenactments
  Health & Science
Space: The Next Generation
Oct. 19 2014 11:45 PM An All-Female Mission to Mars As a NASA guinea pig, I verified that women would be cheaper to launch than men.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 16 2014 2:03 PM Oh What a Relief It Is How the rise of the bullpen has changed baseball.