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Two Family House

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Two Family House

Starring: Michael Rispoli, Kelly Macdonald
Director: Raymond DeFelitta
Rated: R
RunTime: 104 Minutes
Release Date: October 2000
Genre: Drama

*Also starring: Kevin Conway, Matt Servitto, Rosemary DeAngelis, Victor Arnold, Richard B. Shull, Anthony Arkin, Katherine Narducci

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Before 1955, American audiences were used to seeing only the handsomest young stars involved in romantic adventures. Delbert Mann's "Marty" changed all that by exploring true love between two homely, lonely and desperate middle-aged people played by Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair who discover to their delight that for every lonely guy in the Bronx who looks even slightly better than Quasimodo there's an equally lonely gal who'd love to cook for him for the rest of their lives. While oodles of comparable films, particularly indies, have come out of the woodwork since "Marty," all too many have played up to the most obvious audience pleasers, a good recent example being Stephen Kinsella's schlocky "Double Parked," as insipid as it is predictable--a sitcom from the get-go.

What a pleasure, then, to take in Raymond De Felitta's sincere, alternately funny and poignant drama about ordinary working-class people from the Marty era, the 1950s, except that in this case most of the folks are married and living across the water from the Bronx. This Staten Island saga, filmed on location in that outer borough and also in Jersey City and Bayonne, hones in on small but telling incidents in the lives of the anonymous people living in ramshackle homes, folks who may perhaps travel to Manhattan once a year to see a show. Staten Island in pre-Verrazano Bridge days could as well be Fiji without the palms--that's how isolated from the world so many of these people chose to be.

In "Two Family House" the principal character, Buddy (Michael Rispoli)--a name as familiar to working-class stiffs then as Jennifer or Chad might be to today's debutantes--is in prison. The jail has no bars but is a brig constructed by the fellow's milieu, particularly his demanding and critical wife Estelle (Katherine Narducci). Buddy was once scouted by Arthur Godfrey during his military service, invited to audition as a singer for Godfrey's TV show, but thanks to his "practical" fiances warning, he passes that up and instead launches a series of failed businesses. Buying a two-family house, part of which he plans to convert to a bar, he fails to contemplate the presence of drunken tenant Jim O'Neary (Kevin Conway) who, together with his pregnant wife Mary (Kelly Macdonald) refuses to vacate the premises. When Mary's baby turns out to be black, her Irish husband leaves her, unwittingly setting the stage for a romance between the maritally challenged Buddy and the indigent new mom, Mary.

With the help of an exquisitely restrained performance by Michael Rispoli, known to viewers of the TV series "Sopranos," De Felitta spins a trenchant tale of people who live on the same island but who are worlds apart. The paisans from the neighborhood bar together with the woman friends of Buddy's cantankerous wife Estelle have only contempt for the hapless Mary--not so much for her strange marriage to a drunken bum but for giving birth to a black baby. In fairness, we must say that in insular communities like Staten Island at a time that knew little about political correctness, such prejudice was common, just as people freely accepted the frequent use of pejoratives to describe those of other ethnic and racial groups.

Buddy's growing affection for Mary is not difficult to comprehend given the restrictions imposed on him by his wife and friends and particularly given the beauty of a lass whose lovely Irish lilt could make you think she'd as well be named Shannon or Erin rather than Mary. De Felitta, who wrote the screenplay as well and who perhaps is influenced by Spike Lee, evokes humor from Buddy's banal chatter with his pals, but even more captivating is his portrayal of the growing love between Buddy and Mary who are, at first, as hostile as landlord and tenant (which they were) but who find though a series of spontaneous meetings that they have far more in common with each other than they have with the spouses of their own ethnic circles.

"Two Family House" is a small film, one which proves that you can evoke emotions from an audience by showing real people in critical situations who overcome their initial distrust to work out gratifying solutions. The story is narrated throughout by an unseen African-American, purportedly the now-grown baby who bore witness to the developing bond of the two people who nurtured him. To no one's surprise, "Two Family House" won the audience award at this year's Sundance Festival.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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