Agent Fox Mulder, the coolly instinctual sleuth of The X-Files, got pretty good at unraveling paranormal mysteries. If only the actor who played him were as adept at solving the riddle of his movie career. David Duchovny's new vanity project, House of D, is the tortured tale of a thirteen-year-old boy facing tough choices, family tragedy and raging hormones. In the telling, Duchovny commits almost every crime to which the coming-of-age genre is prone. The whole thing is undeniably well-meant, and it tries very hard to be sensitive and touching -- hey, it's even got Robin Williams in the role of a retarded janitor with a golden heart and a broken-down bicycle -- but its possibilities are quickly swamped by fake charm, precious melancholy and some preposterous turns of plot.
Duchovny wrote House of D, directed it and plays the hero in his hiply bearded grown-up form, so there's no use trying to spread the blame around: This is D.D.'s stinker, and his alone.
Proceed here at your peril. When first we behold the protagonist, Tom Warshaw, he's living as a successful American in Paris, spouting French to his pretty French wife, seeing to the needs of his own thirteen-year-old and continuing his career as an "artist" -- which appears to mean that he does bright, cute, literal illustrations for kiddie books. When he decides to reveal his secret past to his spouse, we are transported back to Greenwich Village in 1973, where his younger self, Tommy (played by a handsome but school-play-level actor named Anton Yelchin), is about to experience the pivotal year of his life.
No summary can be too short. Tommy's father is dead. His distraught mother (Téa Leoni, a.k.a. Mrs. David Duchovny) is strung out on barbiturates. He attends a strict parochial school, encased in blazer and necktie. He's precocious. He's plucky. He's lonely. For friendship, he turns to Pappas (Williams), the good-hearted janitor, who is 41. For guidance, he winds up listening to a streetwise muse called Lady Bernadette (Erykah Badu), who happens to be an inmate at the old Women's House of Detention (thus the title) at Sixth Avenue and Tenth Street. Tommy can't see her at all. She views him with a shard of broken mirror stuck through the bars of her cell high above the street while dispensing all manner of wisdom about love, friendship, family dynamics, personal integrity and dance techniques.
This "Lady" character is not without legitimacy. I used to live in Tommy's old neighborhood myself, and I remember the sharp, often hilarious exchanges between the House of D inmates and the liberated citizens below. No one, however, taught an entire philosophy course. That's the conceit of an amateur dramaturge trying to advance his plot. Speaking of conceits, Williams' conception of mental retardation in this movie is what you'd call "flexible": One moment, he's the picture of halting bewilderment, his face screwed into contortions; ten minutes later, he bears a striking resemblance to Robin Williams, standup comic -- all agility and cleverness and showy trick voices. The guy just can't help himself.
As for Tommy, let's not talk here about puppy love (Williams' daughter Zelda plays the object of his affections), or misunderstood theft, or even death -- all of which become entangled in Duchovny's turgid screenplay. Instead, let's jump-cut to the moment when our pint-size hero, full of Lady Bernadette's sage advice, boards a jet for Paris, all by himself, presumably never to return. Remember now, he's thirteen. The fact that this kid cannot possibly have a passport has apparently not occurred to Duchovny, and that's not the only misapprehension. Even fairy tales demand dramatic logic. This one ain't got none, just an inflated sense of its power to move us.
So. How did Agent Mulder come to perpetrate such stuff? Well, he has taken a class or two at the Academy of Sticky Sentiment. Last year he was a willing participant in Nia Vardalos' Connie and Carla, a screeching rip-off of Some Like It Hot. And back in 2000, he was the star of a justly forgotten melodrama called Return to Me, in which he played a grieving Chicago widower who falls in love with the recipient of his dead wife's transplanted heart. It's very hard to top that Frankensteinian bit of business in the emotional-manipulation department, but the man appears to be trying.
House of D. D is for Dreadful. For Dud. For Duchovny.