It’s truly unusual to encounter a film in which every element is so thoroughly false as “House of D.” Not an episode seems real nor any character authentic, and not a single line of dialogue rings true. The combination of sloppy sentimentality and literary affectation in this writing-directing debut from actor David Duchovny is so complete that although the coming-of-age tale, which apparently has some minor autobiographical elements, is set in New York and Paris, the movie actually feels as though it comes not from another time but another planet. “House of D” wants to be sensitive, poetic and moving, but instead manages to come across as pretentious, melodramatic and sappy.
The protagonist of the story is Tom Warshaw (Duchovny), who tells the story of his youthful tragedies to his Parisian wife (Magali Amadei) on the occasion of their son’s (Harold Cartier) thirteenth birthday. The bulk of the picture, told in flashback, focuses on Anton Yelchin as the young Tommy, growing up in NYC in 1973 with a mother (Tea Leoni) who’s mentally unstable and suicide-prone as a result of her husband’s death. Tommy’s a bright, considerate kid, a scholarship student at a Catholic school presided over by Father Duncan (Frank Langella). His best buddy is Pappas (Robin Williams), a “retarded” older man (to use the now-incorrect seventies term) who’s both a janitor at the school and Tommy’s partner in a delivery service for a local butcher shop run by a mysterious European lady. The title refers to the Women’s House of Detention, near which Tommy and Pappas hide the earnings they’re saving to buy the boy a new bike, and where Tommy strikes up a conversation with an inmate in an upper-floor cell who calls herself Lady Bernadette (Erykah Badu). While unsuccessfully trying to get him to buy her some dope, the Lady advises the kid about his crush on Melissa (Zelda Williams), a student from the school across the way. With Lady’s encouragement he gets up the courage to arrange to meet Melissa at a dance, but that sets off Pappas, whose jealousy leads him to do something very stupid; and Tommy must decide whether to let his friend suffer or to take the punishment on himself instead. Her son’s problems also have a tragic effect on Mrs. Warshaw, one that puts Tommy into a second, even greater, moral dilemma.
Duchovny lays all this out like a bad student writing exercise, one that, to this viewer at least, seems like a weirdly clumsy reworking of elements from “The Glass Menagerie”–conflicted son named Tom, mother who can’t escape the past, challenged person whose future depends on Tom’s staying or leaving. But Tennessee Williams had the good taste not to add an epilogue in which an older, wiser Tom returns to his childhood neighborhood to tie up all the story’s loose ends as mawkishly as possible. Or to hand the material over to a cast that highlights the flaws rather than trying to conceal them. The worst offender in this regard is certainly Williams, probably the worst choice imaginable to play a saintly man-child. (Hadn’t Duchovny ever seen “Jack”?) Equipped with a set of prodigiously false teeth, Williams matches them with a performance that’s even less real. It’s bad enough that as written, Pappas veers from near-infantilism to mental competence whenever the exigencies of the plot demand such a transformation (and the reverse as well), but Williams’ pious mugging makes things all the worse. But he’s nearly matched by Leoni, whose over-the-top ferocity rivals her turn in “Spanglish,” and Badu, who swoons away her jailhouse scenes as though she were channeling Norma Desmond. The best performances come from Yelchin, who invests young Tommy with some unexpected nuance, and Langella, who gives the priest a slightly fey quality without sacrificing the character’s integrity. On the technical side “House of D” uses its modest budget well–Lester Cohen’s production design, Teresa Mastropierro’s art direction and Ellen Luter’s costumes evoke the period nicely, and Michael Chapman’s cinematography gives everything a burnished, languid feel that’s quite appropriate.
But it’s the story that matters, and in that respect the picture is aptly named: you’re likely to feel pretty much like a hapless prisoner while watching it. The “D” in the title indicates not just its would-be auteur’s name, but also the grade the movie deserves.