Three working fireplaces. A 19th-century oak writer’s nook. A stained glass window, featuring pretty little bluebirds, no less. The duplex in Brooklyn looks perfect. And so does the couple moving into it, successful first time novelist Alex Rose (Ben Stiller) and clever magazine editor Nancy (Drew Barrymore). The fact that his collection of first editions will fit nicely on the built-in bookshelves only seems to be icing on the proverbial cake.
But in Duplex, nothing is quite what it seems. Alex and Nancy think it’s promising that the upstairs apartment is rented to the Irish-born Mrs. Connelly (Eileen Essell). She coughs demurely and feels too ill to let them in her apartment when they come to visit her for the first time. According to real estate agent Kenneth (Harvey Fierstein), she has “to be close to 100 years old.” Not to put too fine a point on it, but Nancy and Alex are thinking about starting a family, so they’re already imagining the use they’ll make of the upstairs space once the old lady passes on. Though they’re too polite to say it too loudly, when rival novelist Coop (Justin Theroux, creepy as ever) and his girlfriend, the supermodelly skinny Celine (Amber Valletta), announce that they’re pregnant, the clock begins ticking a bit louder.
Toward this end, moving day goes well, converted through time-lapse photography into a speedy, easy, even a typically Drew Barrymorishly cute process. Once the wedding pictures are hung and the throw rugs are thrown, Nancy heads off to work, all smiles, as Alex settles in to spend presumably productive days at his laptop. He’s on deadline for the second novel, his editor (Swoosie Kurtz) having explained to him that the publisher is downsizing, so anyone who doesn’t adhere to contracted dates will be shown the door.
Trouble starts following the couple’s first visit to Mrs. Connelly’s apartment. She feeds them Bugles and ancient dip, introduces them to her macaw, Little Dick (named for her dead seafaring husband), and disparages “writing” as an occupation (though she allows that James Joyce was a genius, she notes that he died drunk and penniless). Once back in their own snuggly bed, Alex and Nancy are unable to have sex or sleep, as the blare from Mrs. Connelly’s tv seeps through their ceiling vent, so that they’re forced to listen to her channel-surfing, from Woody Woodpecker to Love Boat to South Park. You get the idea: she’s the tenant from hell (she pays only $88 a month in rent, due to “rent control”).
It gets worse. (And if you’ve seen Throw Mama From the Train , War of the Roses , or even Death to Smoochy , you have a sense of just how far director Danny DeVito will go to abuse bodies for comedic effects.) Delirious from lack of sleep the next morning, Nancy heads to work and leaves Alex to face Mrs. Connelly alone. Down comes the little old lady, to ask the dear boy if he’ll take her round to do her errands: at the pharmacist’s, she counts every pill, at the grocers’, she counts every grape, etc. By the end of the day, Alex is so frazzled and exhausted, he can’t begin to write; in the coming days, he takes to napping, a collapse that leads to still more casual derogation from Mrs. Connelly, and concern from Nancy that he’s not going to make deadline.
Faced with Nancy’s doubts concerning his own backbone, Alex can only furrow his brow and whine, “She manipulated me. She’s very crafty!” It’s only a matter of time before Nancy is also swept up in the chaos, losing her job and being stuck at home to suffer Mrs. Connelly’s relentless noise-making (she’s in a brass ensemble that rehearses at her place) and pestering.
Alex resorts to deviousness (sneaking into the old lady’s apartment, setting booby traps, getting caught in her bathroom while she bathes — lots of old sight gags that are strangely refreshed here, mainly thanks to Stiller’s endlessly pained face), which lead to visits from the goodhearted local beat cop, Officer Dan (Robert Wisdom), who suspects that Alex is indeed up to no good, and makes his life that much more miserable. The pile-on of pressures makes Alex nearly unable to function, much less write. Wholly desperate, the new homeowners realize they will have to murder Mrs. Connelly to get any peace.
The antics following from this decision are best described as bizarre and bordering on gross-out humor, not quite descending to fart jokes, but yuckily physical just the same. Still, the sheer extremity of these efforts — as when Alex and Nancy hire slickster porn king/hitman Chick (James Remar) — is occasionally, if disturbingly, quite funny. Perhaps most satisfying is the aim the film takes at pretty young professionals, so sure that their desires trump anyone else’s. Mrs. Connelly’s revenge is strange, but in the current political environment, as seniors are ignored, abused, and repressed, also rather sweet.