When Tom Warshaw (writer/director David Duchovny) gets home six hours late for his son's thirteenth birthday, he decides to explain himself by telling his wife about his own thirteenth year in New York City and how he came to live in Paris. Young Tommy (Anton Yelchin, "Hearts in Atlantis") was receiving Catholic schooling on scholarship, working with the school's mentally challenged janitor Pappass (Robin Williams) part time delivering meat, counting his grieving, widowed mom's (Téa Leoni, "Spanglish") sedatives and trying to figure out girls. Pappass and Tommy were saving their wages for a cherished bicycle and they stored the money in a strange place where Tommy also began to receive advice from an unseen woman in solitary confinement, Greenwich Village's "House of D."
Duchovny has forged a rather unique coming of age tale and matched it with a young actor with equally atypical characteristics. However the first time writer/director is far less successful containing that story within his awkward framing device, giving the film a ragged, uneven quality. The first and last acts are of TV movie quality and not as well acted as its midsection. Even Robin Williams, who appears throughout the film, gives a better performance when not acting with Duchovny.
At first everything seems golden for Tommy. He's got a great give-and-take relationship with his hip, chain-smoking mom. School is run by Reverend Duncan (Frank Langella, "Sweet November"), a decent guy with a wry sense of humor. Tommy's got a crush on his French boss, Simone (Olga Sosnovska), and he and Pappass turn their work into play. But slowly the worries are revealed, as the twelve year old checks his mother's pill supply and her sleep time respiration. Furthermore, regular rights of passage, like blundering his first flirtation with Melissa (Robin's daughter, Zelda Williams), compound Tommy's problems. The woman Tommy gets to know only as a black hand holding a mirror shard so that she can see *him,* Lady Bernadette (Erykah Badu, "The Cider House Rules"), starts off giving him girl advice, but every time he gets results, something more dire immediately follows. Melissa's interest makes Pappass jealous, so Pappass steals that bicycle and loses his job as school janitor. When Tommy, advised wisely by Lady, steps in to take blame from the Reverend, the well-intentioned move has catastrophic results. Lady uses some tough love and Tommy, at the tender age of thirteen, leaves the country alone and heads for Paris.
Duchovny overreaches with his first film, but he does achieve several lovely small moments when he's not directing himself. Russian born Yelchin has a distinctive voice, high and soft but not effeminate, and gives a sweet confidence to his character. The idea of Williams playing a mentally challenged janitor was disturbing, to say the least, but the comic has been decaffeinated, toning things down to a realistic, unannoying level. The have nice chemistry, telling question and answer jokes like a vaudeville routine and delivering deli orders in slo-mo mode like a pair of mimes. Téa Leoni is good too, walking the balance between maternal care (she has an obsession with brussel sprouts and education) and self-absorbed grief. Erykah Badu is like an oracle imprisoned in a tower and she gives Lady a nice mix of mystery and friendship, the latter laced with a need to amuse herself. Duchovny even gets memorable performances from those who only appear in a few brief scenes. Langella is a standout and Mark Margolis ("The Tailor of Panama") as Mr. Pappass economically tells us everything we need to know about the burden his son bears with his inebriated verbal abuse.
Tom's Parisian wife has more than a passing resemblance to Tommy's first love Melissa. This is a nice bit of casting, perhaps, but the actress is wooden. In fact, everything about the present scenes is just off, beginning with Tom's wife's insistence that he return to New York City and visit his past in order that he may go forward with the future (i.e., grow up). In what should be a coda, balanced with the film's prologue, Duchovny bounces through one stagy vignette after another, smiling blandly. His reunion with Pappass is awkward (Was Pappass pulling his leg in initially not recognizing him? Impossible to tell.) and the old janitor's dialogue is just too smart twenty years later. Tom's adult tracking down of Lady is a nice bit of sentiment, a standalone success in an overextended sequence.
Perhaps Duchovny's best bit of writing involves an ironic foreshadowing with Tommy's habit of lying under his mom's bed to hear the sound of her breathing. Too bad his unusual rite of passage leads to such blandness.
Tom Warshaw (David Duchovny), an expatriate American writer living in Paris with his French wife and son, has never told his wife about his troubled childhood and this has caused a rift in their marriage. One night, after having a little too much wine, he decides to tell her (and everyone in their building as they eavesdrop) his story and, maybe, save his marriage in House of D.”
First time writer-directors often fall into the trap that theirs is the greatest story ever told and they savor every detail and nuance of the work. More often than not the auteur overdoes it and the result is something like “House of D.” Duchovny makes his debut with his semi-autobiographical tale – the director, like his character, Tommy Warshaw (Anton Yelkin), grew up on the streets of Greenwich Village – that tries to do too many things, not always successfully. Less would have been more in Duchovny’s debut film.
The multi-threaded screenplay, set in 1973 Greenwich Village, has 13-year old Tommy coping with the loss of his dad, using mischief and working with his retarded friend, Pappas (Robin Williams), delivering meat for the local deli. The youngster is at a point in his life where he needs an anchor at home but his mom (Tea Leoni) has never gotten over the death of her husband and is on a downward spiral of booze and drugs. Mrs. Warshaw, a lost soul in her overwhelming grief, is more a burden than a help to Tommy.
Tom has been saving his money with Pappas to buy a special bicycle, dubbed the Green Lady, and they have been hiding the loot at a secret spot near the infamous Greenwich Village Women’s House of Detention. His frequent visits come to the attention of one of the inmates, Lady Bernadette (Erykah Bardu), whose only view out onto the world is via a broken shard of mirror glass. Since Tommy can’t get advice at home, he turns to the voice from the top floor of the House of D for his first foray with the fairer sex, in the guise of Melissa (Zelda Williams, Robin’s daughter). This newfound interest in girls totally upsets Pappas who is deathly afraid of losing his best friend. Then tragedy strikes.
There is a lot going on in this busy story that skips blithely from drama to comedy to romance to life-altering tragedy and back again. Duchovny’s screenplay fails to focus as each incident – Tommy’s mischief at school; his interludes with Lady (the best thing about “House of D” making me want to know more about Bernadette’s story than adult Tom’s); young Tommy’s romance with Melissa; his friendship with Pappas and their antics; Mrs. Warshaw’s grieving - is a stand alone vignette. The mixing of humor and pathos is a skill that the debut writer-director has yet to learn. “House of D” has a chopped up and assembled feel to this coming of age tale that could have done with a couple more rewrites.
To Duchovny’s credit, his small but capable cast help make “House of D” better than it could have been. I think the director should have cast someone, besides himself, as the film’s narrator. The scenes, through the film, of adult Tom telling his story to his wife, Coralie (Magali Amadei), rips you away from young Tommy’s tale instead of bridging it. The helmer seems to be having a difficult time directing his star, David Duchovny. There is some other good acting going on despite the film’s problems.
Anton Yelchin gives a very likable performance as 13-tear old Tommy, playing the boy as a bit untamed, due to tragic family circumstance, but still a good kid. Robin Williams walks a very careful line as Pappas in a performance that borders on precious. Williams keeps it honest by giving “the retard” (remember, this is 1973 and the politically correct term “mentally challenged” had not evolved, yet) emotions such as anger, the sense of betrayal and revenge as well as cutting cute.
Spicing things up considerably is the two-person show of Tommy and Lady as the inmate gives advice to the lovelorn teenager. Erykah Badu is the best thing in House of D” as the voice of Tom’s disembodied muse. The actress gives a nuanced performance where a soft chuckle over Tommy’s humorous adventures represent a momentary emotional escape from her physical prison, even if it is through the life of a kid. Badu has such screen presence I hope the actress gets more work in film. Tea Leoni muddles through the thankless role of the grieving widow in a one-note performance – not the actress’s fault, I think. Frank Langella, as Tommy’s headmaster Reverend Duncan, gives a nice spin on his could-have-been incidental character.
House of D,” in more seasoned hands, both writing and helming, could have been a better film. It isn’t a bad effort first time out of the gate, but it’s not a good one, either. I give it a C.
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