D is for Duchovny
As I was watching House of D, the new movie written and directed by David (The X Files) Duchovny, I couldn’t help remembering a time years ago when I met Al Capp, the creator of Li’l Abner. At the time it was the most popular comic strip in America, and Capp talked about the 1959 musical film based on his strip and told us how happy he was with it. I asked him about the earlier film, a low-budget potboiler from 1940. How was that? “Unbelievably bad!” he guffawed.
I thought of that encounter because those exact words came to me as I watched House of D. It’s unbelievably bad but in a different sense. Capp meant that the 1940 movie was worse than I could imagine. House of D, on the other hand, is bad because every scene, every minute—practically every shot—is utterly, relentlessly unbelievable.
The title refers to the Women’s House of Detention, a jail on 10th Avenue in New York’s Greenwich Village. The House of D was torn down in 1974, but in 1973, when most of the movie takes place, it was still a going concern. Before we get to 1973, however, we get a prologue set in Paris, in which we meet Tom Warshaw (Duchovny), an American artist living in Paris. When Warshaw shows up late for his son’s 13th birthday, his French wife (the two seem to be estranged, but Duchovny isn’t clear on the point) berates him. By way of apology and explanation, Warshaw tells her the “dark secret” of his past.
Flash back to 1973. Warshaw is now “Tommy” (Anton Yelchin), two weeks away from his own 13th birthday. He lives in Greenwich Village with his widowed mother (Téa Leoni), a nurse who feeds her son a steady diet of Brussels sprouts for their health benefits, even as she chain-smokes and exhibits the wild mood swings of her unresolved grief. He attends Catholic school on a scholarship and works afternoons making deliveries for a butcher shop, assisted by his best friend Pappass (Robin Williams), the “mentally retarded” (to use the 1970s term) janitor at his school. After work, Tommy and Pappass pool their tips and stash them in a drainpipe near the House of D. One day, Tommy strikes up a conversation with one of the jail’s inmates (Erykah Badu), who offers him advice on life from her cell up on the third floor, talking to him while watching him through a mirror she holds out between the bars.
What happens to Tommy, to his mother and to Pappass; how Tommy winds up living in France; and what happens after the adult Warshaw reveals his “dark secret” to his wife and son—all of these are things I can’t talk about without being accused, with justification, of giving things away. But none of it makes any sense even on its own terms. Who can believe that Tommy could carry on a conversation, in the dead of night, with a jail inmate without either being drowned out by the city noises or getting arrested for disturbing the peace? Who did Duchovny think he was kidding, giving Warshaw a son born and raised in France who speaks with an American accent?
And the final scene set in 1973, when Tommy—well, never mind, we don’t want to spoil anything. Let’s just say that this particular development is so jaw-droppingly divorced from any sense of reality that it plays almost like a story that would have been written by the teenage Tommy for an assignment in English class—a tale dreamed up by an adolescent with no inkling about how things like airports, hospitals, child-welfare bureaus, the U.S. State Department and foreign immigration (to name just a few) operate out here in the real world.
The most appalling misstep in this earnestly fervid movie is Duchovny’s baffling failure to see that casting Robin Williams as a mentally retarded janitor was just asking for trouble. Williams, of course, is a brilliantly inventive comic with an undeniable gift as a serious actor. But some roles just play to his most self-defeating impulses. Here, grimacing, wincing and mumbling through a set of false teeth that look like a row of tiny marble tombstones, he gives the most mawkish, the most self-indulgent and the absolute worst performance of his career. Yes, worse than Patch Adams or Death to Smoochy. As unbelievable as that may sound.