Tuesday, July 06, 2004


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 5 July 2004 on the laptop (bus ride)

Black comedy may be the most pure form of escapism that the movies offer. Yes, the flights of fancy of a musical are nice, as are the imaginary worlds offered by science fiction. But in a black comedy, you can give up the very concept of right and wrong for an hour and a half, and allow the murder of an old woman to be a perfectly acceptable way to ensure domestic tranquility.

It’s tricky, though – basic morality is rather ingrained in most of us, so we resist this sort of cutthroat comedy. Duplex does a good job of ameliorating the audience’s guilt – by the time young married couple Alex and Nancy (Ben Stiller and Drew Barrymore) embrace homicide, their rent-controlled tenant from hell (Eileen Essell) has, in fact, done something that doesn't make snapping justified, but does make it understandable.

It is, however, simply a lot of nuisances leading up to it. Director Danny Devito and writer Larry Doyle come up with a lot of good little jokes, but never anything that caused me to disturb the other people on the bus with laughter I couldn't hold in. (Speaking of which, "on a crowded bus/plane/train" has got to be among the worst environments for movie-watching; it just feels wrong to have a crowd but not get feedback from it) The incident with the laptop which causes the escalation came closest, but didn’t quite make it.

This movie should have worked better. Devito has a fine track record of finding the humor in his characters' misfortune, and both Stiller and Barrymore are fine comic actors, though the latter isn't quite as good at projecting the kind of crazed energy that her co-star excels at. They’re surrounded by funny people like Harvey Fierstein, Justin Theroux and Wallace Shawn, although neither of them get a moment as amusing as James Remar giving Alex and Nancy porn as a housewarming gift. Ms. Essell is the best of the lot, projecting a sort of malevolence under a veneer of sweetness that is just thick enough to call into question whether she’s trying to be evil or not.

Ironically, this script seems to suffer both by not offering clear good guys and bad guys in the beginning and being too clear on that in the end. Devito's mocking narration suggests that Alex and Nancy are living beyond their means and receiving their comeuppance, which makes it a little harder for the audience to make the leap they do and laugh at their attempts to kill their neighbor without guilt. On the other hand, this already-short (89 minutes) movie goes on a couple scenes too long. Rather than ending on an ironic note, it adds a pair of epilogues that suggest that things turn out okay, but also make the plot a little problematic. Why, you might ask, would someone do X if the situation was really Y? Isn’t it needlessly risky?

And it's not necessary for Doyle and Devito to do this. By the end of a black comedy, you don't need to justify anything. The audience is either with you or has dismissed your movie as another symptom of the fall of western civilization; and softening your stance will just dilute what the first group liked without changing the minds of anyone in the second group.

If you’re going to do the black comedy thing, just go for it, and let me worry about karma afterwards.

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