HOUSE OF DPG-13
Growing up in Greenwich Village in the grungy 1970s obviously left a deep impression on the actor David Duchovny. In House of D, Duchovny's debut as both writer and director, he has skillfully captured the ambiance of that place and time, essentially using the setting as one of the odd but arresting characters in his oddly arresting story of an adolescent boy who's about to be knocked flat by life-by its potential for great joy as well as unbearable sorrow.
Duchovny himself plays the adult Tom Warshaw, an American artist and expat living in Paris with his wife and son, who is about to turn 13. This prospect sends Tom's memories flashing back to the events leading up to his own 13th birthday in 1973, when he was living in a small Greenwich Village apartment with his emotionally fragile mother, who had not fully recovered from the death of her husband the year before.
Young Tommy is played by 15-year-old Anton Yelchin (an extremely accomplished Russian-born young actor who's already proving a natural for screen stardom in the U.S.), while Téa Leoni (Duchovny's real-life wife) plays his mother. No matter how hard the naturally cheerful Tommy tries to lift his mom's spirits, she keeps falling back into a self-destructive melancholia. He has better luck, however, entertaining his pal Pappas (Robin Williams), a mentally retarded 41-year-old who's a janitor at the exclusive boys' school Tommy attends (on scholarship) and who also works with Tommy as a delivery boy for a local butcher.
Theirs is not the most unusual relationship in the film; that designation goes to the friendship Tommy develops with Lady (Erykah Badu), a woman he never gets to meet face to face, as she's locked in solitary confinement in the Women's House of Detention-the "House of D" of the film's title-and can only communicate with Tommy from a barred window a few stories up from the sidewalk where he stands, shouting to her. (As any old-time Villager knows, many a relationship was carried on in this way when the long-gone women's prison still stood.)
House of D is at its most entertaining when it focuses on the kind of coming-of-age hijinks indulged in by adolescent boys of any generation. Tommy gets into trouble with his sardonic schoolmaster (Frank Langella), for example, and develops a crush on young Melissa (Zelda Williams, daughter of Robin). But that kind of plot predictability goes out the window when Tommy begins to follow some of the well-intentioned advice from Lady. His rash actions inadvertently send both Pappas and his mother out of control, with consequences too overwhelmingly tragic for a 13-year-old to handle. It is his determination to confront this troubled past that sends the adult Tom from Paris back to Greenwich Village as it is today.
The neatly tied-up ending of House of D underscores the nostalgia which permeates this very personal film from Duchovny. While his script is good, even poetic at times, it certainly cannot be called an outstanding effort. However, Duchovny obviously does have the talent to become an outstanding director. For he shows here that he can elicit nicely controlled, straightforward performances-especially from young Yelchin and the experienced but often flamboyant Robin Williams-and also that he can resist the novice director's tendency to wring every last drop out of a soggy emotional moment.