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Stiller, Barrymore can’t get comfortable in ‘Duplex’

“Home Alone” (1990) got it right. Many movies have. The classic English comedy “The Ladykillers” (1955) got it best. And then there’s “Duplex.”

In cases of a director and screenwriter being one and the same, we sometimes find someone who wears one hat well being sabotaged by his other self.

The problem with “Duplex” is that Ben Stiller and Drew Barrymore, who are among the several producers, and director Danny De Vito all failed to notice the problem central to the picture’s success: Stiller and Barrymore, who are also the leads, are miscast.

Oh, sure, they can play the youngish marrieds Alex and Nancy, looking for a dream house. They can look eager and anxious as they buy a 19th-century Brooklyn brownstone duplex with the help of real estate agent Kenneth (Harvey Fierstein).

They can be solicitous when they meet their elderly, rent-stabilized tenant, the brogue-wielding Mrs. Connelly (Eileen Essel). On a bad day, we can even indulge them a stray remark about how they wish she’d leave — one way or another.

We can watch with mild amusement as they grow annoyed by her loud TV, her band practice, her pet macaw and her smiley-faced complaints, including some about them to Officer Dan (Robert Wisdom).

But we cannot buy this particular generic, bland, dimensionless couple plotting a series of increasingly elaborate attempts to murder Mrs. Connelly.

It isn’t that the situation is so offensive; failed attempts to slay a harridan were the comic core of the first film De Vito directed, “Throw Momma From the Train.”

“Duplex’s” shortsightedness is in failing to make the schemers eccentric, idiosyncratic and inept in ways that make them look all the funnier as each plan backfires.

That’s the essence of Road Runner cartoons and of the hapless crooks in “Home Alone” and “The Ladykillers.” When set up efficiently, we can enjoy the mayhem because we relish the boomerang and the deadpan frustration.

Essel is a delightful foil who seems to have studied the unforgettably lovable Katie Johnson in “The Ladykillers,” but De Vito hasn’t a clue how to make Stiller (so at home in “Meet the Parents”) and Barrymore seem even somewhat funny here.

Their characters’ escalating viciousness doesn’t fit anything else we observe about them. They’re laid-back in a way that throws their goofy miscalculations off balance.

And so De Vito and screenwriter Larry Doyle resort to flatulence, vomiting, anatomical jokes, the tired gag of naming a male body organ and a coda that flat-out won’t wash.

Swift and painless, “Duplex” could have used Kevin Kline and Joan Cusack, or Joe Pesci and Kathy Bates, or Eugene Levy and Toni Collette. You tell me.

Additional Information:

Movie Details

‘Duplex’

Director : Danny De Vito

Stars : Ben Stiller, Drew Barrymore, Eileen Essel

MPAA rating : PG-13 for sexual content, language and some violence.

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