Given its artificial, unpromising beginning, it's amazing how much goodwill David Duchovny's feature writing and directing debut House Of D manages to earn over the course of its middle section. And it's equally amazing how quickly it squanders that goodwill at the end. Duchovny's post-X-Files career has never been promising and has rarely seemed rewarding. Maybe that's why he felt compelled to give himself a plum role that puts his puppy-dog eyes and trademark almost-sincere shy smirk front and center. But every time he appears onscreen, the pungent scent of self-indulgence fills the air.
House Of D begins with Duchovny visiting his estranged Parisian wife and 13-year-old son. After a ridiculously tortured internal monologue comparing adolescence to safecracking, he promises to justify his erratic fatherhood by sharing his hidden history. The film then flashes back to his childhood in 1973 New York City, where his 12-year-old self (Anton Yelchin, child star of the misbegotten Stephen King adaptation Hearts In Atlantis) pals around with 41-year-old "retard" Robin Williams, supports his disintegrating mother (Duchovny's real-life spouse Téa Leoni), and crushes on a shy rich girl (Williams' daughter Zelda). Like any adolescent, Yelchin is sometimes overwhelmed by his emotions and responsibilities, especially when his budding relationship with Williams Jr. starts threatening his friendship with Williams Sr., and the film briefly looks like it's heading into Of Mice And Men territory. Lacking a role model who's not dim-witted, self-medicated, or just plain clueless, Yelchin eventually starts taking advice from a hooker locked in the local women's House Of Detention. Stuck in solitary confinement high above the street, the worldly-wise streetwalker (Erykah Badu, hamming it up and seeming to thoroughly enjoy herself) watches Yelchin through a handheld shard of mirror and explains away his problems, which nonetheless steadily compound.
Yelchin's charm and comfortable chemistry put a lively spin on a corny coming-of-age story, and while Duchovny's pun-packed script is cleverer than reality allows, his visual direction is solid, and he does often capture an immersively loopy, good-natured humor. Williams, in wry muted mode, even does a decent job with his overcalculated, plot-convenient role; Duchovny's idea of a developmentally disabled adult talks and acts like a very dumb kid (he refers to nights as "sleeps"), but is still full of trenchant philosophy and perfectly timed bon mots. But inevitably, the film returns to the present, and Duchovny wallows in a series of mawkish self-validations that turn the whole project into a Hallmark card. House Of D never feels honest, but when Duchovny consciously tries to score sentiment points, the strain is more than the film can handle. Duchovny might as well look directly into the camera and beg "Like me. Please, like me." It'd seem more sincere, and no less blatant.