I was visiting relatives in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1987 when “Throw Momma From The Train” was released. I caught a Friday night showing with my cousin, and except for the broad, slapstick humor, the audience just sat there, quiet as a mute locked in a bank vault.

Then there was this scene where the stars, Billy Crystal and Danny DeVito, drive past a giant cow mural on a barn. Mesmerized, DeVito coos “Oh look, cow.”

The audience went nuts. Why? Because even though the tongue-in-cheek Hitchcock homages slipped past their collective conscious, the audience knew cows are funny. They are. It was a concept that this audience could grasp. Familiarity breeds more than contempt, it provides a safety net, a comfort zone, when the going gets tough.

That’s the problem with “Duplex,” the new, and very familiar, comedy from director Danny DeVito. There’s way too much cow in “Duplex,” a dark, comedy that always seems to take the safe road. The jokes in Larry Doyle’s screenplay are broad, never deviate from the obvious, and totally waste the comic talents of Ben Stiller and Drew Barrymore, who act like they’re doing DeVito a favor rather than having a good time.

One half “Throw Momma from the Train,” one half “The Ladykillers,” Doyle mixes and matches with no discernable concern to make the material his own. “Throw Momma from the Train” was DeVito’s debut as a movie director, and with the help of cinematographer-turned-director Barry Sonnenfeld, created a dizzying masterpiece of comedy suspense. DeVito tries to replicate that style in “Duplex,” but after 16 years, the luster is gone.

“Duplex” presents DeVito numerous opportunities to recapture the frenetic energy of “Throw Momma from the Train” and his follow-up film “The War of the Roses.” Stiller and Barrymore play a young yuppie couple who buy a large duplex in Brooklyn. There’s only one drawback. The old lady (Eileen Essel) who lives upstairs, and is protected by rent control. At first oblivious to her presence, Alex (Stiller) and Nancy (Barrymore) begin to despise the old lady when she constantly intrudes into their lives.

After a misunderstanding that ends in sexual harassment charges, Alex and Nancy agree that the only way to gain back control of their new home is to get rid of the old lady. Their options include sending her back to Ireland or having her killed. Both plans fail miserably as the old lady always ends up with the upper hand.

It’s difficult to care about anyone in this film, especially Stiller and Barrymore, who just go through the motions. Essel is cute, but she’s no Anne Ramsey.


Toss Momma Off The Lease


Ben Stiller, Drew Barrymore, Eileen Essel, Harvey Fierstein, Justin Theroux. Directed by Danny DeVito. Rated PG-13. 89 Minutes.


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