I’m going to contrast two movies that follow a similar theme. One succeeds and the other, in my opinion, fails miserably.
The particular genre is comedies where the main character gets screwed over. There’s probably a technical term for it that I don’t know. But in general, the theme is that the main character is in a situation where everything is working against him, her, or it in a way that elicits humor. You’re supposed to be able to laugh at either the ways the protagonist falls short or the ridiculous situations that develop.
Before we talk about anything, you should get an idea of why I attend movies. To me, movies are an escape. I go to a movie to immerse myself in a separate world and a plot where I don’t have to make a decision or work out anything or be involved, I can just watch. I can relax knowing that everything is beyond my control and thus no worry has to be raised. I tend to want something cheery, too. The world is depressing and scary enough and I don’t think we need any more of that. So I tend to gravitate towards light cotton candy and comedies. I only consider more serious titles if the movie itself is so good as to not be passed up. For example, ‘The Dark Knight’, where all my friends raved about it so of course, I had to see it too. And I like straight shooters. If a movie is going to go rapidly dark and grim, it had better be really spectacular and done delicately and skillfully. I can’t remember any titles off the top of my head, but when it happens poorly (as is often the case) I just can’t enjoy it. I came in to escape and have a laugh, not to be preached at or to cry.
Having that out of the way, you can understand where I am coming from when I critique this particular style. Probably we could call it ‘Wile E Coyote Style’. The coyote will never catch the road runner. He will always get smacked in the face with a boulder. There is no lesson (except to not catch roadrunners with catapults) and there is no real harm done (he just picks up and tries again). That to me is a necessity. There should be no real harm. The protagonist is only temporarily hurt or screwed over and nothing is actually lasting. You don’t feel so bad watching because you know that in the grand scheme of things these situations and plots would not lead to real harm in any party. The coyote gets up and the audience laughs because they know he’ll never have his internal organs squeeze out like a fresh orange across the desert when the boulder hits. He doesn’t go to a hospital and have to pay hospital bills, get painful surgery, maybe code once or twice, and go through years of physical therapy all while he suffers Post traumatic stress syndrome, hearing the ‘beep beep’ in his dreams and around every corner. Nope, the most we see is he’s wrapped in bandages that, when he spots the bird, fly off as he goes into the chase.
Let’s get down to brass tacks now. The other day I saw the movie ‘Duplex’ on TV. “Ah,” I said to myself (I’ve long since abandoned caring about talking to myself), “I’m bored and here is a nice little comedic movie to pass the time.” The set up seemed nice, a couple moves into a Brooklyn duplex, and they have a rentee in the form of an elderly woman. The general set-up is this old woman does something and the couple either get in trouble or get grief over no matter whether they do it or not. So, they in turn try to turn her out on the street through a variety of schemes.
It fails miserably. And part of the problem is that the director or the writers or whoever chose to display serious consequences for the couple every time they were put in the compromising situation. In a way, it becomes realistic that it no longer becomes an escape and it no longer stays funny. How can I laugh when the old bat throws the husband’s computer into a fire, destroying the book he was writing and depending on to put food on the table. Then we had a scene where we watch the couple sell off all their belongings just to survive. How can I laugh at that? Let’s examine why that particular scenario failed.
First, they made the mistake of establishing the husband as the writer and big money-maker. That means that anything that happens to him or his work will result in serious business. This in itself isn’t so bad because it might seem initially to be harmless background, perhaps he’ll make up a lie or something that’s real skillful (cuz he’s a writer lol) and he gets egg on his face when they find out it isn’t true. Or the old woman will add a chapter that’s weird (haha she writes porno into his history novel, publisher casts a weird eye on the writer, but they take it out and all’s well). I’m not a particularly stellar writer and yet I came up with two somewhat funny scenes involving him being a writer. Someone with a true gift could probably milk this into comedy gold.
But no. Instead, they have the old lady chuck his laptop (trivia: an Apple) into an open fire under the premise of an ‘accident’. You have to see it to believe it. How does she get it into the fire? She basically just … throws it in. You heard me right. There’s no particular wind up (aside from ‘he’s a writer and she’s evil’), the old woman just pushes it straight into the flames. And that in itself isn’t so bad, it still worked. It could have worked. It almost did. We got a funny scene where he pulls it out and chucks it into snow to put it out. Then, it gets flung into a street and run over with a truck. Destruction is always funny.
What I haven’t told you, however, is that up until this moment, the movie drops hint after hint that the novel he’s writing in his laptop is past due and is needed to win some bread. The couple’s livelihood is staked on this thing. When I saw the laptop get destroyed, I felt sympathy and sad more than amused and entertained. I wanted to smack the hag upside the head, she didn’t even apologize (if she did, it was lame). Not funny at all to me. As if that wasn’t bad enough, after that is a barrage of scenes which chronicles the struggles of the couple as they try to make ends meet, the publisher drops the writer, and in general things get bad. Just not funny at all.
This is just a singular example of the failure in this movie. It gets worse and worse with this old hag. You sympathize with the couple because you want to see this old farty bitch die a horrible and slow death for being an crab ass jerk. What’s worse is that the police (well, a singular police officer) march to the old woman’s drum beat and make life double hell for our hapless couple. You get the feeling that there is no way to turn for these poor saps. They’re up shit creek without a paddle and alligators with laser beams on their heads are circling while vultures cackle overhead. They’re trapped. And through no fault of their own, they were simply doing what most Americans and people in the world do and buy their own home. If someone is going to be in this kind of situation as the movie presents it, the characters on the receiving end better deserve it somehow. Nope, they’re certainly likable enough, albeit a tad wooden.
The list just goes on and on. It reaches new lows in punishment and it gets so extreme that you can’t laugh anymore. You just want it to end. You just pray the old woman dies or this couple gets some astronomical reward for going through this. They went from normal enough people to hiring a trained assassin to get rid of sack of decaying flesh that is torturing them. Yes, that is how bad it gets. Yes, it’s a spoiler. But in this case, I’m going to do the reader a favor and ruin it so you don’t rent/buy this movie wondering what it is and how it goes. They hire a killer. Unsurprisingly, he fails. And the couple gets the grind again.
The climax involves the husband still saving the witch’s life from the burning duplex, despite the hell she has raised and intense damage to livelihood, job, and reputation. It really says something when this man hates her enough to hire a killer against her and yet has a change of heart and enough compassion to not let her burn in hell. Nope, he saves her life in a remarkable display of how real people would NOT act. Anyone else in that position and experience would have let her burn to death. He was shown earlier to have no qualms to killing her by proxy, but perhaps seeing her die face-to-face changed his heart. It doesn’t matter either way, because nothing comes from it. He saves her and that’s it, they move out and move on. Where do they go? What do they do? What kind of resolution occurs to justify that level of suffering? Nothing. Nothing at all. In fact, it’s not so much a climax, because that implies there’s a resolution afterwards. It’s more like the final culmination of a pile of nonsense and suffering. The end. It’s extremely unsatisfying and leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth.
Oh wait, there is a resolution. There is a voiceover at the end of the movie, just as the credits roll (who would want their name on this garbage?) where it is revealed the old woman, the cop, and the retailer who sold the couple the house are all in cahoots with each other and their business is luring in new couples and breaking them down. Yes, you heard me right. Not only do they show absolutely no remorse for their actions (how could they? Nothing really happened to these antagonists) but they imply they have done this numerous times to at least one other couple! They’re like serial killers! Oh, but we’re supposed to laugh because HA HA it was funny watching that couple get their comeuppance for… existing? For being happy? For being a successful writer?
In any other movie, that trio would have been nailed and destroyed. They deserve it. They did nothing redeeming what so ever. That’s another gall, they act as if they have ‘taught’ the couple something. Personally, the only thing they taught me was avoid elderly women living in a home being sold by Danny DeVito. It taught me how big of a jerk some people can be. “Oh, maybe he’ll write about something he knows something about now!” cackles the old woman in the end, as if the writer has to know about the subject he’s writing about. Doesn’t anyone realize that, while it’s useful to have knowledge of the subject, one does not necessarily have to be an expert in an area of fiction to write well in it? And he was making lots of money (supposedly) before the movie, so he was successful even if he wasn’t the next Herman Melville. There is nothing so revolting to me as arrogant and nasty group who destroy innocent people and claim it’s for the ‘greater good’ or that they ‘taught a lesson’. Go to hell. On second thought, hell is too good for these people.
Let’s look at a movie which tries to pull the same idea but does so much more successfully. “Meet the Parents” places a guy in a house with a soon to be father in law who really really hates him and works against him during the entire course of the movie. It does what “Duplex” should have done.
First, nothing in the movie does permanent harm. The only thing that was really on the line was the love of his fiancée, but that was never seriously in doubt. They just had the same arguments every bride and groom go over concerning in-laws. They loved each other in the movie enough that there was no way they were going to be split and the movie establishes this nicely. What was really on the line was getting the girl’s family to accept him as part of the family and that wasn’t necessary. They could have gotten married whether the father wanted to or not despite whatever the girl said, since she frequently went at odds with the father. This groom was ‘the one’ and I have a feeling that if the dad had said ‘no’, they would have eloped.
And once that’s established, all the situations in the movie are more relaxed. We can laugh easily as the soon-to-be groom smashes an in-law in the face and as the father gets him held up in an airport. In fact, the most serious scenario was that airport scene, but unlike duplex the consequences are played off and ignored (he would have been arrested) so we laugh at his outburst. ‘Duplex’ would have had him going through a grand jury and be up for years in prison. ‘Meet the Parents’ used it to laughs and keep the protagonist in the area long enough for the climax/resolution to take place. It also wraps up everything nice and concisely. At the end of the film, almost everything gets resolved and despite it all, no actual harm has been incurred. To me, it was a successful example and a counterpoint to the type of film ‘Duplex’ tried to be.
I have had people tell me that ‘Duplex’ was supposed to be a dark comedy. No. No, I don’t accept that. I have watched black comedies before and they have made me laugh and resolved much better than ‘Duplex’. ‘Fargo’ was funny. There are others I can’t even remember. My point is that if you claim that I can’t judge it because I pegged it wrong, you are wrong. In fact, you’re the one evading the fact that even if we ignore the feeble attempts at comedy, the basic plot itself is so lame it’s on life support. And dark comedies are supposed to have, uh, actual humour in them too. Hence the ‘comedy’ part of the genre name.
To conclude, ‘Duplex’ fails miserably on so many levels I could write a small novel. Its humour is weak and poor and is eligible for welfare, its plot has more of a downward snowball effect with no resolution, and it should have been strangled in its crib. I can only hope everyone was high or drunk or GHB’d when making this, and may the Lord have mercy on their souls.
As a side note, to those who feel my ranting and comparisons between films that are almost ten years old, I’m not an avid movie goer/TV viewer. Please forgive me.