No, the D in the title isn't for Duchovny, Appellate Judge James A. Stewart points out. It's for Disappearing, since this indie flick spent only 28 days in theaters.
"You know how in old movies, when the bad guys want to break into a
safe? There's this one guy, the safecracker, who puts his ear up to the lock and
listens as he dials the combination. Listening for what they call, in English,
the tumblers, because when the number is right, there's a click. And he knows
with a click, he's breaking in. Well, in a man's life, there's a tumbler, too,
and I think that number is 13."
House of D originated in stories of a building—the Women's House of Detention in New York City—which was torn down in 1974 and replaced with a garden. People complained about the noise, because the inmates used to converse with the passersby, not to mention their pimps, at all hours. What if there was a female prisoner dishing out life advice to a troubled teen from her vantage point above the street? David Duchovny (The X-Files, Evolution) asked that question, and wrote and directed a screenplay that answers it. There may have been very few people asking that question (House of D only took in $388,532 in domestic box office), but the movie isn't bad, even if the last reel gets a little schmaltzy.
The movie opens, appropriately enough for a New York City coming-of-age story, in…Paris, as Tom Warshaw (Duchovny) rides his bike aimlessly through the streets on his son's birthday, finally arriving at his estranged wife's home after his son has fallen asleep in the courtyard. He tries to wake his son to tell him something important he's been weighing for a while, but manages to rouse his wife and the neighbors instead. Still, he tells his story…
Tom's was a typical New York City childhood, growing up with a widowed mom (Téa Leoni, Duchovny's real-life wife, Deep Impact, Hollywood Ending) in Greenwich Village, working as a delivery boy teamed with mentally-challenged Pappass (Robin Williams, Good Morning Vietnam, Jack), and going to a Catholic school run by Father Duncan (Frank Langella, Dracula).
Young Tommy (Anton Yelchin. Jack, Taken) and Pappass (who's also the janitor at the Catholic school) are buddies. They go see The Texas Chainsaw Massacre together; Tommy getting the childlike Pappass to make appropriately adult faces to help him sneak in. They dream of "the beautiful green lady," an expensive bicycle that looks a lot nicer than the gray delivery bike they share on their rounds. Trouble is, Tommy also dreams of Melissa (Zelda Williams, Robin's real-life daughter), a girl from a nearby co-ed Catholic school who's been watching him and his friends play stickball. Tommy asks for advice from Lady (Erykah Badu, The Cider House Rules), who looks out from solitary with the help of a cracked piece of mirror.
With Lady's encouragement, Tommy learns to dance by practicing with a pole ("Hi, I'm Tommy. You're very tall," he tells the pole), and arrives at the dance in a brightly-colored pimp outfit ("Your outfit is, um, orange," the patient Melissa says. "You went to the dance dressed like a clown," his less patient mom says later.). Since it's a movie, Tommy somehow gets the girl—who, in her green dress, has an eerie resemblance to a bicycle, such that even Pappass can realize that Tommy is moving on to a new kind of lady. Pappass, realizing he'll be growing apart from his friend, flies into a rage, stealing the bicycle from the shop. Tommy understands and, feeling responsible for his friend's actions, tells Duncan that he stole the bicycle. When his confession is combined with Pappass' ambiguous, unaware response, Tommy's now in a lot of trouble, enough so that he'll eventually hop a plane and flee for Paris.
The scenes that establish Tommy's affection for Melissa—his uncomfortable denials to the guys on a stoop, the bunch of girls who surround him in the gym shouting "small balls" at him, and his mother's lack of understanding as he's taking it seriously enough to consider leaving town (even before some really serious complications)—ring true. Even the more unusual happenings after Pappass steals the bike feel authentic, as Tommy cries enough as he discusses his problems with Lady to drop real tears on the camera below him. It's only the last reel, as the adult Tom Warshaw returns to New York to set his life in order, that seems too pat. With an excellent cast, it's always watchable and entertaining, but even without the House of D blooming into a garden (which Duchovny says would be too ridiculous for a movie if it hadn't happened in real life), the reunions and resolutions lose the naturalness that makes the rest of the movie fly.
Young Anton Yelchin makes a convincingly angst-ridden teen, probably enough of one to freak out his real-life guidance counselor when he goes back to school. He can show himself as enough of an adult to help Pappass and his mom, but still seems authentically intimidated by first love, and mischievous enough to sneak into a horror movie. Téa Leoni sounds like a real mom, loving but overly protective, as she lectures her son. Robin Williams gives a convincing performance as Pappass—at times sweet and childlike, at others frightening—and keeps it sympathetic. I empathized when, as Pappass was posing as Tommy's dad to deal with a clerk, he gets angry and says, "You retard," to the clerk, with an emphasis that puts in two words everything Pappass has felt for years. There's one weakness, though. As Duchovny notes in commentary, "The man was not facile, not quick; but Robin is like lightning." Every once in a while, Williams' lightning shows through. Erykah Badu slips real concern into her loud bluster ("You got my weed?") in the 1970s scenes, and echoes the same mix as an older, wiser woman when she meets up with Tommy as an adult.
Within the limits of a small budget, the film is beautifully shot. Particularly dramatic is the scene where Tommy, looking down into a camera in a window depression and leaning against a railing, begins to cry, dropping those real tears onto the camera as we see the House of D above and behind him. Many of the shots and angles were designed to hide the anachronisms, as Duchovny admits in his commentary, but he manages to make it feel like a bigger-budget picture. Since color (in the form of the "green lady") plays an important role in the film, it's no surprise that the screen is filled with bright colors, at times as bright as the drawings that introduce several sequences. I found no problems with the transfer or the choice of Dolby Digital sound tracks.
Duchovny makes his case for House of D with a self-deprecating tone in both the commentary track and his "All Access Festival Pass" feature, shot with a herky-jerky camera at the 2005 Santa Barbara Film Festival. Comments such as his statement about his hope that he could shoot the movie for under $1 million—"I was wrong"—are greeted with laughter at the festival, and I laughed a few times during his commentary track. He's blunt about such low-budget tricks as "grabbing shots, to prove we were in Paris, really," during the bicycle scenes, and the "same damn cars appearing over and over in every scene" to establish the time as 1973 throughout the picture. The "Building the House of D" and "The Old Neighborhood" shorts are pretty, but not particularly substantial. Go ahead and check out the deleted scenes, including a coda explaining the real-life history of the House of D, but none of them were necessary to the movie.
In his first indie film outing, Duchovny succeeded in his apparent, unstated goal: to make viewers begin to forget him as Fox Mulder. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Actor/Director David Duchovny
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