Inspired by life of Jeanne Calment, the world's oldest woman, who died at age 122, Duplex tells the story of young marrieds Alex and Nancy (Ben Stiller, Drew Barrymore) who buy the dream New York apartment in a duplex they share with the very old Mrs. Connelly (Eileen Essell). The couple anticipate their aged flatmate won't live much longer. Problem is, she is durable as Teflon, and a lot tougher--keeping them up nights with her loud TV and destroying their days with her querulous demands. Should they just kill the crazy old bat?
Danny DeVito, with his affinity for human savagery and gift for laugh-out-loud grossness, has found comically fertile ground here. The mixed revulsion and fascination with which feisty Mrs. Connelly is viewed recall his Throw Momma from the Train and, in Essell, he has found another memorable old gargoyle to match Anne Ramsey from that earlier film. Larry Doyle's script is often sharp, pungently setting up surefire jokes which evoke his experience on The Simpsons (especially when Alex is forced to watch Mrs. Connelly get naked and into her bath, to the handy, all-purpose strains of Spandau Ballet's "True").
Duplex offers one of the most hilarious, brilliantly extended scenes of the year--the nocturnal battle between the two apartments involving a clap-on clap-off TV remote--although the film pushes it when Barrymore pukes all over Stiller, after both already have been trashed by faulty plumbing. For the most part, however, DeVito keeps things from getting too berserkly out of hand. As much as you might sympathize with the young couple, there is no denying their basic greed and sense of entitlement, especially when Nancy thoughtlessly suggest Mrs. Connelly move to a more demographically appropriate place for her, like Miami.
Stiller gets to use both his antic Jerry Lewis-like gift for all-out physical comedy and innately sour persona to good advantage. Barrymore also throws herself fully into the spirit of things. She's as dippily sweet and flowerlike as ever, which makes her growing frustration and mocking contempt of the old lady all the funnier. A strong supporting cast (Swoosie Kurtz, Maya Rudolph, Harvey Fierstein, Justin Theroux, James Remar) don't have enough to do, but their presences are completely welcome.