MOVIE REVIEW: House of D

A good screenwriter can invent a story and imbue it with life such that—no matter how implausible the plot may be—it seems entirely real. Charlie Kaufman (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) is a master at this. Conversely, bad screenwriting can make a mundane and realistic story appear completely unbelievable. Sadly, “House of D”—David Duchovny’s (“The X-Files”) debut as both writer and director of a feature film—is an example of the latter.

The movie begins in present-day Paris, where Tom Warshaw (David Duchovny) has spent the past 30 years working as an artist. However, as he reflects upon his son’s 13th birthday his thoughts drift back to his own 13th birthday and the life-changing events that preceded it. Before we know it, the film whisks us back to New York City’s Greenwich Village in 1973.

Essentially, this movie is about young Tommy Warshaw (Anton Yelchin)’s ultimately unsuccessful search for parental guidance. The story begins shortly after his father’s death and, although the film never makes this explicit, he spends his time trying to find a replacement for him. His relentless search starts in the obvious setting of his own home, but his mother—played, interestingly enough, by Duchovny’s real-life wife Téa Leoni—proves to be too anxiety-ridden and grief-stricken to be anything other than a burden.

From there, his search takes him to more and more unlikely settings. Although the progression from his home to his school is an obvious one, the mentor he selects there­—Pappass (Robin Williams), the mentally-challenged school janitor—certainly is not. Nonetheless, Pappass gives Tommy everything his mom does not; he is happy to listen to Tommy’s rambling thoughts and his mental deficiency allows him to relate to a 13-year-old boy.

However, his advising capacities do not extend to romance and, when Tommy develops a crush on Melissa, played—in another interesting and nepotistic casting choice—by Williams’ daughter Zelda, he responds only with jealousy and resentment.

As a result, Tommy moves on to his final and unlikeliest mentor: a prostitute incarcerated in the Greenwich Village Women’s House of Detention, the House of D from which this film draws its name. Played by Erika Badu, Lady—she never gives Tommy her real name—intersperses her counsel with frequent requests that Tommy buy her a dimebag in Washington Square Park. Nonetheless, she does give serious thought to Tommy’s problems and she offers him valuable life lessons.

Like most writers, Duchovny borrows heavily from the canon of literature, theater, and film, but he does so sloppily. This movie has the potential to achieve a Shakespearean tone: Tommy’s mom is something of a female King Lear; Pappass is the ubiquitous wise Fool; and Lady is the shrewd and mystical ethnic sorceress. Duchovny’s writing, however, unwittingly directs these characters away from their potential classical allusions and makes them instead into one-dimensional clichés.

Proud bearer of a degree in English from Yale, Duchovny is clearly quite well-read, but his erudition cannot make this story seem real. All of the characters are ill-conceived and uneven; they bounce back and forth between their opposing roles as classical references and representations of actual people, ultimately giving the impression that, while writing, Duchovny couldn’t decide whether he was writing a movie or an extremely garbled academic essay.

The only moments that achieve any sort of humanity in this movie are those that are probably closer to autobiography than fiction. David Duchovny actually did grow up in Greenwich Village in the 1970s and this fact shines through his otherwise lackluster writing. The portrait he paints of that time and place, as seen through a teenage boy’s eyes, is actually quite convincing.

In particular, the subplot of Tommy and Melissa’s teenage romance is very successful; it achieves a level of human emotion that the rest of the film lacks. There are no specific scenes that truly encapsulate this tone; rather, the brief touches of subtle emotion—furtive glances across the playground, an awkward conversation overlooking Central Park, a first kiss—are what make this small portion of the film so good. Duchovny’s camera captures these brief encounters as quick snapshots of isolated emotion that, strung together, approach the sublime.

Sadly, however, these moments are fleeting and the bulk of the film is written in mind-bogglingly hackneyed clichés, starting with Duchovny’s entirely misplaced film noir-esque voice-over narration and extending all the way to the disastrous melodrama that leads him to become an American artist in Paris, quite possibly the biggest and most painful cliché of them all.

Although his visual presentation of the film shows that he has some promise as a director, it is all too clear that Duchovny’s creative talents do not include screenwriting. The extent to which this story fails to achieve any sort of verisimilitude is positively mind-boggling.

However, it would seem that Duchovny lacks not writing skill, but rather imagination; while his writing can evoke atmosphere, event and emotion that he himself ostensibly experienced, actual fiction escapes him. Perhaps “House of D” would have been a better movie had Tommy Warshaw, instead of running off to become an artist in Paris, grown up to play the lead in “The X-Files.”

—Staff writer Steven N. Jacobs can be reached at snjacobs@fas.harvard.edu.