Duchovny's 'House of D' Is Quite the Fixer-Upper

In "House of D," an artist (David Duchovny) revisits his childhood in New York and the janitor (Robin Williams) who became a father figure. (Lions Gate Films Via Associated Press)
By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, April 29, 2005

It's easy to like the movie that "House of D" tries to be: a gritty yet whimsical coming-of-age tale about a fatherless 12-year-old and the offbeat parental figures he collects on the streets of Greenwich Village in the early 1970s.

But it's hard to enjoy what writer-director-star David Duchovny has actually made of "House of D." Apparently the "X Files" guy has a thing for cosmic coincidence, but the problem here is tone. How much whimsy can the movie take? How much grit? And how much of either can you really stomach from the reliably whimsical Robin Williams, who plays (here comes the grit) a retarded janitor?

Actually, Williams isn't all that bad, his character's just drawn that way. That character -- so inappropriately flippant, so innocent, so guilt-riddled and soulful -- becomes the emblem of the movie's undoing. Duchovny desperately wants to keep a light tone, but he works awfully hard at connecting his meaningful dots and suffusing his story with feeling. There are broken families everywhere, and good deeds around each corner; it's a fable that's too fabulous by half.

It starts in Paris, with Duchovny bicycling past Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower on photogenically wet streets. Duchovny plays Tom Warshaw, an American expat artist who is coming to a decision: It's time to tell his French wife and their son (who's turning 13) about the crazy things that happened to him back when he was turning 13 in New York. As a Warshaw-drawn flip-book cartoon shows him floating over the ocean back to America, the long flashback begins. "My story," he says in a line that will have certain viewers checking out right away, "starts where every man's story starts: with Mom."

Tommy's mother is a nurse who can't take care of herself; she's played by Tea Leoni, Duchovny's real-life wife, in brief scenes of heavily tranquilized melancholy. (Duchovny keeps coming back to the cigarette butts Tommy's mom flicks into the toilet, making an against-the-grain sentimental image of it.) Tommy's dad died a year ago, and with Ma slowly sliding down the tubes, the kid begins to latch onto parental figures elsewhere.

The surrogate father he informally adopts is -- wait for it -- Pappass, the janitor who's 41 going on 12 and is played by Williams, Hollywood's king of arrested development. Tommy (acted by Anton Yelchin with a good teenage approximation of Duchovny's deadpan style) and Pappass bike through the streets of Manhattan making raunchy jokes, delivering meat for a French butcher and squirreling away their tip money near the House of D.

That's their shorthand for the Women's House of Detention, where, locked in solitary on the fourth floor, lurks bad ol' Lady Bernadette, gazing at Tommy in a jagged shard of mirror (how'd she get that?) held at an angle out of her window. Lord, the earthy wisdom Bernadette passes Tommy through that window, and how Duchovny's camera idolizes her, gazing up adoringly at the majestic profile and planet-size Afro of Erykah Badu, who inevitably becomes an icon of self-reliance in the part.

For the key adults in Tommy's world, life itself is one big House of D, and a pileup of heavy-handed ironies, to boot. The script staggers under the weight of the mother who's helpless, the disabled father figure ("Make the dad face," Tommy tells Pappass as he tries to weasel his way into the R-rated "Texas Chainsaw Massacre"), the kind and sensible jailbird.

Duchovny's writing isn't exactly dumb; on the contrary, he conscientiously works his theme of crazy-quilt parenting until it tuckers out. But the storytelling is unbelievably tidy without finding the promised dash of magic that would let the movie get away with, say, cranking the Allman Brothers' "Melissa" on the soundtrack as Tommy gets a crush on an upper-crust girl named Melissa. As a director, Duchovny makes the most of the New York streets and period soundtrack (classic rock, natch) to give the movie a pleasant upbeat energy. But he can't stop the writer from over-romanticizing everything he sees.

House of D (97 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for moderate profanity and smutty adolescent humor.

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