I am in Kentucky, preparing to direct a play with the Shakespeare festival here. I am staying with my sainted mother during this project, and occasionally I get the urge to sift through boxes of things I can't bring myself to throw away. Among them: old journals of private thoughts, some poetry, prose, drawings, and whatever else was filling my head from ages, oh, 12 to about 20. The poetry is gawd-awful, the drawings cartoons, and the prose sentimental treacle. My short stories if you can call them short or even stories are like little Hallmark cards about young boys like me encountering adventures just like the ones I wanted for myself, with happy endings I so desired for my future. It doesn't take long to tire of this exercise, and before long, the journals are back in the box for another year or three until I am ready, yet again, to look into the mirror of the past and see what a sap I was. In David Duchovny, making his debut as film writer and director, I see a kindred sap.
House of D, which smacks of autobiography, introduces us to Tom Warshaw, (played by Duchovny himself), an artist living in Paris with his French family. He decides that on his son's 13 birthday, he will tell his Big Secret, which centers on an incident that occurred when Tom was himself 13. This means, to us the viewers, that a coming-of-age story must precede the revelation of the secret, or I guess the movie would only be 20 minutes long. So, we are taken on a wondrous journey back to 1973 Greenwich Village an era of shaggy haircuts, a deceitful Republican president, and an unpopular war dragging on halfway across the planet. (It should be easy for us 2005-ers to relate.)
So, 1973: Young Tommy (Anton Yelchin) lives with his widowed mother (played by Tea Leoni Mrs. David Duchovny to you) and attends Catholic school. He has a job delivering for a deli (insert lots of sexual meat-related jokes here) alongside his best friend, Pappass. Pappass, we are told innumerable times, is retarded. This means, cinematically, that the ante for situational comedy is upped considerably, as is the potential for embarrassment and danger. That Pappass is played by Robin Williams means only that dangerous, comic embarrassment is even more likely.
Tommy is a fairly normal boy for his age, though perhaps smarter and a bit more emotionally complicated than his contemporaries. He is 12 years old, beginning puberty and just starting to notice girls to the chagrin of Pappass, who has an inkling that the onset of courtship may mean that he has been outgrown. But they continue to have adventures anyway, and together they long to purchase the Beautiful Green Lady a banana-seated bicycle in a store window. They save their money and hide it under a grate outside the local women's house of detention. (Get it? The House of D?) This is, incidentally, foolish. Each day they navigate past criminals and pimps and drunks to count and then bury the money, in plain view of the miscreants.
The House of D (the prison, not the movie) provides Tommy with a source of wisdom otherwise lacking in his peers and parents. A prostitute (complete with heart of gold) named Lady Bernadette is there, in a cell about three stories up. With a shard of mirror (beware, guards!) she is able to look down onto the street to Tommy burying his money and, by turns, offer life advice and beg for smack money. She is played by Erykah Badu, a fascinating actress and singer, and it is the conversations she has with young Tommy (artfully lit and directed in a film that is otherwise artless) that anchor the film.
I dare not reveal more. There are coming-of-age secrets ahead, and I won't spoil them. But this isn't a very good movie, so maybe I'm spoiling it more by suggesting that you avoid it. With so many good ingredients (including a fine Frank Langella as a stern teacher) you would hope for better but not in the hands of a novice. Duchovny, a smart guy (a Princeton man, no less), will write and direct again, I'm sure. Hopefully, this freshman misstep will get the sugar out of his tank.