Danny DeVito knows a thing or two about murder and old ladies. He advised Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner throughout their marital cage match in War Of The Roses, and plotted the demise of his loving mother in Throw Momma From The Train. In Duplex, director Devito once again indulges in Hitchcockian comedy-noir as he pits Ben Stiller and Drew Barrymore against a little, old, but hardly defenseless lady — and you can guess who comes out on top when the bell rings.
Stiller and Barrymore play Alex and Nancy, a young house-hunting couple who find a fantastic Brooklyn brownstone with enough square footage for a flag football game. The only catch, as their real estate agent (Harvey Fierstein at his inimitable best) points out, is that the upstairs contains a rent-control-enjoying tenant — and her 40-year-old parrot, “Little Dickie.” However, when they meet Mrs.Connelly (Eileen Essell), who appears to be at death’s door, they snatch the home up and begin formulating plans for the equally-spacious second floor.
But Mrs. Connelly — a widow of 40 years (she was married to “Big Dick,” a seaman, for 58 years) isn’t ready to give up the ghost just yet. Connelly’s an ingratiating charmer, and while writer Alex is at home struggling to finish his second book, the wily Irishwoman starts a campaign of terror, wearing the couple’s door buzzer out. Before Alex knows it, he’s helping Mrs. Connelly count blueberries at the local market, taking out her trash, and immersing himself in Plumbing 101. Alex and Nancy cannot sleep, for the elderly manipulator stays up all night with her TV blaring through the floorboards..
It soon becomes clear that Mrs. Connelly has to go. After she turns down an offer of a one-way ticket back to Ireland, the bleary-eyed couple try their hand at homicide.
With a snappy screenplay by former Simpsons writer Larry Doyle, Duplex borrows pratfall techniques from Mouse Hunt and its predecessors in the genre (hapless Alex survives a natural gas explosion and a gunshot wound to the penis, among other indignities), and takes a page or two from the Farrelly brothers’ gross-out humor handbook. Eighty-one-year-old UK starlet Essell is a first-rate scene stealer, Barrymore gives a surprisingly good performance as Myrna Loy-like Nancy, and Stiller can out-suffer just about anyone. However, Duplex‘ best asset is its director — Devito’s trademarked flair for hilarity-laced wickedness is stamped throughout this movie; viewers will be laughing too hard to predict its knife-twisting ending.