The Woman Upstairs

An old crone torments her neighbors in Duplex.

Too close for comfort
Too close for comfort

It’s a funny coincidence that Under the Tuscan Sun and Duplex (Miramax) are coming out on the same day: They’re both about real-estate dreams (and nightmares), and they both get under the skin of people like me, who have no appetite for pornography but an active fantasy life involving the real-estate pages of the New York Times Magazine. The opening of Duplex is a herky-jerky cartoon narrated by Danny DeVito (who also directed): It lays out the plight of a young, middle-class couple, struggling novelist Alex (Ben Stiller) and glossy-mag editor Nancy (Drew Barrymore), who enjoy city life but have neither the desire nor the money to raise a family in Manhattan. Along with many others, they find the Promised Land across the Brooklyn Bridge in the lovely neighborhood of late-19th-century brownstones designed by Frederick Law Olmsted: Park Slope. Or as I like to call it, home sweet home. (I gravitate to neighborhoods declared by one or another of the Hamill brothers as having been ruined by an influx of yuppies.)

The movie got me where I live, but I think that even non-Park Slope real-estate owners will have a blast at Duplex: It’s one of the most unnerving slapstick extravaganzas I’ve ever seen. Alex and Nancy find a spacious brownstone: a paradise of fireplaces, dark wood, and stained-glass windows on a tree-lined block near the park—perfect for raising kids, perfect for writing, reading, cooking, making love on the thick throw-rug in front of the fire. … All together: Ahhhhhhhh. There is one catch, though: their upstairs rent-controlled tenant, Mrs. Connelly (Eileen Essell), a very old Irishwoman whose television blares all night over the couple’s bedroom, who imposes on them incessantly, and who comes to assume a demonic importance in their lives and careers.

I groaned when I first heard this premise, which sounded like a slapstick version of the dimwitted tenant-from-hell thriller Pacific Heights (1990)—smug yucks for the landlord in us all. But the movie, written by former New York magazine editor and TheSimpsons writer Larry Doyle, plays subtle havoc with our sympathies. Alex and Nancy are attractive, likable, and largely good-hearted, but they’re also annoyingly entitled. He has a fat chip on his shoulder over the failure of his first novel, and he seethes over the success of his buddy Coop (Justin Theroux), a best-selling mystery writer who churns out books in breezy days instead of torturous years. Nancy, meanwhile, fairly salivates at the prospect of getting her mitts into that upstairs space after the death of her tenant: She can’t help herself from snapping pictures of the old woman’s apartment whenever Mrs. Connelly is in another room.

It’s a complicated dynamic, though: Mrs. Connelly is one of those insinuating passive-aggressives who would drive anyone to homicide. Her demands are sweetly hesitant and then, suddenly, bone-freezingly pointed, and she’s apt to editorialize about Alex’s habit of napping in the afternoons after her television has kept him awake most of the night. She’s scattershot, a dodderer—until a well-aimed barb slices through the ether. You watch the 81-year-old Essell, a London-based stage actress and teacher, and think, “A star is born!” She has a magical non-rapport with Barrymore, who’s all phony smiles, like a little girl pretending to be a grown-up, and Stiller—an intense, emotionally naked clown with the best slow burn in movies.

The movie keeps psychotically raising the stakes—not a surprise if you’ve seen any of DeVito’s other malicious comedies, from Throw Momma From the Train (1987) to The War of the Roses (1989) to the recent Death to Smoochy (2002). The little imp must just love to see people driven out of their minds. I tend to find his style too whacking, but his timing here (and that of his editors, Lynzee Klingman and Greg Hayden) is right on the button, and the script’s mixture of sympathy and satire keeps you off-guard. In the end, Mrs. Connelly is more than a slapstick impediment: She’s both an avaricious monster and nature’s revenge on our materialist dreams. She’s Freddy Krueger for gentrifiers.