Danny DeVito’s Ladykillers: A Hipster Farce

Danny DeVito’s Ladykillers: A Hipster Farce January 30, 2023

Brooklyn Brownstones—pretend-affordable then, totally unaffordable now.
Source: Flickr user Can Pac Swire
License: Creative Commons

(2003) is the kind of black comedy you don’t see much these days. Streaming services offer cutesy angst and an aesthetic sensibility distantly related to the gothic [e.g., Wednesday (2022-Present)]. The pitch-tinged moxie of films like Kind Hearts and Coronets (1947) and The Loved One (1965) is an ill fit for our time. Right-wingers and dejected comedians may complain that comedy is dead, that you can’t insult anyone anymore. In the process, however, many make their careers, pivoting from stand-up to dressing-down. Moaning is serious business. There’s a reason Woody Allen characters always make sure you know they’re only a hair’s breadth away from an ulcer.

I’m not so sure comedy is dying; I’d say it’s shifting along with our mores, which, coincidentally, have become more righteous and earnest than they were in 2003 (and we were pretty darn serious in those post-9/11 years). Black comedy requires a willingness to laugh at misfortune and glory in the absurdities of the human condition. Right now, I wouldn’t say we’re capable of glorying in anything really. Here in New Jersey, we haven’t had snow all winter. In Upstate New York, they just had a blizzard so bad it put out the Burned-over District. It was recently 40 degrees in Southern Florida. Joe Biden is president. Donald Trump was president before him. It’d be funny if it weren’t so sad, right? In successful black comedy, the inverse is the case.

Duplex illustrates this well because it lays the right foundation, builds some sturdy-looking walls, and plops a roof on top. It’s not always pretty and no one is going to compare it to an early Ealing Studios comedy [though there is a certain similarity between this movie and 1955’s The Ladykillers), but it gets the job done.

The first trick is that we don’t like anyone involved. Alex Rose (Ben Stiller) and his wife Nancy Kendricks (Drew Barrymore) are a pair of early hipsters (in lingering 80s fashion, still called “yuppies” in 2003) looking for their dream home in Brooklyn. The gentrification of nearer BK is so complete by now that many probably don’t realize how recently Manhattan-dwelling professionals didn’t cross the bridge, or how the hipster stereotype of the late aughts and tweens grew from this first wave of artists and professionals. Alex is an author, hoping to have the house to himself to draft his newest novel. Nancy, glad of her reduced commute, is only happy to scurry away to the ad agency where she is an executive.

They find the right place. You guessed it—a duplex. The only slight hiccup is that an old lady named Mrs. Connolly (Eileen Essell) lives upstairs in a rent-controlled apartment. The realtor reassures them though: she hasn’t been feeling well lately. The new landlords are all smiles as they wait for her to die, but once she seems strong and healthy, they begin to worry. Her pet parrot perched mid-room and harpoon gun on the wall mark her as a bit batty. Worse yet, she’s demanding, asking Alex to accompany her on errands, counting everything one at a time (coins, grapes). Her coterie of elderly friends turns out to be a brass ensemble who love to practice long and loud. Mrs. Connolly even falls asleep with the TV on so loud Alex and Nancy can’t sleep one floor below. Any attempt to involve the police gets them reprimanded by the same officer for complaining about a little old lady. Through it all, she remains daft and pleasant, if occasionally passive-aggressive, a fitting match for their faux-neighborliness barely masking hope for her death and rage when she won’t kick the bucket.

So, they decide to kill her. That’s where a lot of the guffaws are supposed to come from. Some ideas are better than others—at one point, Alex sidles up to someone with the “super flu” on a subway platform, scheming to pass the illness on to Mrs. Connolly. As expected, she remains fit as a fiddle while they shiver and sneeze. When it goes for vomit and poop jokes, perhaps it’s not at its best, but there’s nothing wrong with trying. DeVito’s film plods along from humiliation to humiliation, at its best, evoking laughter both with the attempts themselves and with the couple’s comeuppances. Yuppies get chased out of Brooklyn—what’s not to like?

It’s more devious than even that. The end brings a little twist that really makes the movie. It’s a bit contrived, even silly, but it works. We’ve spent the whole movie identified with Alex and Nancy, seeing the situation from their perspective, pinning our hopes on a not-so-distant future (it was 2003 after all). We relate to having a troublesome neighbor. At the same time, we dislike them, both for what they represent and what they do (like ashamedly hiring a hitman when neither one has enough guile to be Doug Funnie). For her part, Mrs. Connolly is mischievous and disarmingly grandmotherly all at once, like the Oma from Fassbinder’s Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day (1972) turned up to 11. Her insanity wears on us as we plod from ploy to ploy. When this twist breaks that cycle of disdain, we feel a welcome freshness, a final victory for the streetwise over the dignified. The humiliation never ends!

I first saw Duplex on TV as a kid. Maybe I’m just feeling nostalgic for the simple days of the ad-mangled workhouse movie on the tube. Maybe trying to write a dissertation and work other jobs while minding five animals (including a puppy for almost a year now), has made Ben Stiller’s character more sympathetic. But God help me, Duplex hits the spot. It repeats and repeats; the couple’s on-screen chemistry is nothing to write home about. Still, it provokes the occasional laugh at human folly and misery. I’ve got enough folly and misery to fill a bottomless pit—I may as well learn to laugh at them again.

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