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Duchovny's 'House' buckles under the weight of its earnestness

Some stars earn a window of fame during which they can do whatever they want. They can make records, clothes, perfume, a new name, or trouble. If you're Jennifer Lopez, you can do them all. Most successful actors use that window to direct a movie, which, regrettably, is what David Duchovny has done.

Duchovny is a not a big movie star. He's a successful actor of television science fiction, but the film he's written and directed, ''House of D," is like the kind of sticky greeting card you'd find on CBS some Sunday nights. The appeal of Duchovny's acting is his humor and intelligence. He never seems to take himself or his material more seriously than he needs to. So it's strange -- no, it's a complete shock -- that his filmmaking debut is a work of such maudlin earnestness.

The movie is based, apparently, on his adolescence in Greenwich Village during the 1970s, and he seems to mean every minute of it, right down to the casting of Robin Williams as a mentally challenged janitor with big, dirty prosthetic teeth. Williams is absolutely sincere in the movie, and, thus, I can think of no better incentive to avoid it.

Duchovny kicks things off in present day Paris, where he plays Tom, an illustrator who wants to share something important about his past with his young, half-French son. That something requires dragging us back to 1973 where young Tommy (Anton Yelchin) bicycles around his neighborhood, getting into trouble with his best buddy Pappas (Williams).

As played by Yelchin, who's a charmingly unpolished performer, Tommy is a small-time prankster. He gets Pappas to pretend to be his dad so he can get into ''The Texas Chainsaw Massacre." He winds up getting into trouble at school (Frank Langella plays the religion ethics instructor). And he tricks his French teacher into saying ''bonheur" as if she were talking about an erection. That's as close to pure happiness as we and the movie get.

Otherwise, ''House of D" dawdles along as the sort of 1970s-inflicted coming of age reminiscence that feels like the unprocessed ramblings of its creator. Tommy has a crush on a girl (Zelda Williams, Robin's daughter), who likes him back, and the attraction makes both his moribund, widowed Catholic mother (Tea Leoni) and Pappas a little jealous. But Duchovny doesn't dramatize any of these relationships. He leaves them all vague.

Things are especially frustrating between Tommy and his mother, who mostly sits at the dinner table, serves Brussels sprouts, and smokes. For every game of mom-versus-son basketball that's played in their apartment, there are two or three awkward silences and shouting matches that portend the inevitable Life-changing Event. But Duchovny never gets around to telling us who this woman is.

Maybe the fact that an atypically uninspired Michael Chapman has photographed the movie in a depressing perpetual dimness has got her down. Regardless, Duchovny is Leoni's husband and asking such a fierce woman to play such a lifelessly brittle soul (her second consecutive unfortunate mom after ''Spanglish"), one who also happens to be a stand-in for his own mother, seems cruel -- even while offering a ripe possible insight into that marriage.

All of Tommy's relationships with women in this movie are unfortunate, none more so than the episodes with a black lady named Lady. While he stands outside on the sidewalk, she dispenses advice way up from her cell in the movie's titular Greenwich Village detention center, in the hopes that the kid will score her some dope. She's played by Erykah Badu, which you'd never suspect because, for reasons known only to Duchovny and Chapman, she's shown in bits and pieces, obscured by a massive Afro and the drab lighting of her cell.

This woman is both maternal and sexual to Tommy. What would it have cost the movie to put the two in the same space somehow? Is Duchovny making a statement about the separated racial climate of the era? Is he using their distance to do more ''Look ma, I'm directing!" crane shots? Ultimately, he's just pleading for sympathy, piling on enough trite slices of Tommy's life until the movie starts to resemble a baloney sandwich.

Wesley Morris can be reached at

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