Writer/director Raymond De Felitta's TWO FAMILY HOUSE, set on Staten Island
in 1956, is a delightful movie that works on two levels. On one, it is an
amalgamation of the best of the 1950's sitcoms from "The Honeymooners" to
"The Life of Riley." On the other, it is a richly evocative drama that
easily wins your heart. Full of honest moments, even if always told with a
comedic flair, the film feels like a blend of a true story and a fairy tale.
Buddy Visalo (Michael Rispoli) has a dream of being a famous singer. Once
he almost realized it when Arthur Godfrey asked him to come in for an
audition. Buddy didn't, but Julius LaRosa did, and Buddy has forever since
regretted it. He is a blue-collar worker who makes his living as a
machinist, but he has had a series of failed, small-business ventures.
Finally, he sees a way to make his dreams come true.
He buys a dilapidated two-family house in which he plans to live in upstairs
while singing in a yet-to-be-constructed bar downstairs. This means that he
and his wife, Estelle (Kathrine Narducci, "The Sopranos"), can stop living
with her parents as they have been for the past 10 years. ("The Perry Como
Show," which transfixes the in-laws, has been providing Buddy and Estelle
the golden, one time per week when they can have sex.) Estelle isn't wild
about the bar idea and even tries to spend them into bankruptcy at one point
so that Buddy will be forced to give it up. She doesn't think much of Buddy
or his pals, referring to them as "a bunch of knuckleheads."
The initial complication to Buddy's big idea comes in the form of two
tenants, an obnoxious lush, Jim O'Neary (Kevin Conway), and his very
pregnant wife, Mary (Kelly MacDonald, TRAINSPOTTING), who refuse to vacate
the premises. The arrival of their surprisingly half-black son breaks this
logjam, causing Jim to flee, never to be seen again. This also makes Mary
into a social pariah, accorded status below that of a streetwalker.
Buddy, taking pity on Mary, arranges for her to be a "kept woman" in a
secret apartment. They form a strong but strange bond in which she insists
on calling him Mr. Visalo and prefers that he refer to her as Mrs. O'Neary.
He cooks for her and confides in her, but their close relationship never
appears to go much beyond a few shared kisses. She tries to help him come
to grips with his feelings, telling him that he shouldn't feel bad when he
cries. "You're a broad," he replies in his typical, 50s macho vernacular.
"You're supposed to cry."
The film is narrated by her son as an adult, giving it an extra dose of
realism. One of the typical tales concerns Buddy and Estelle's "legendary
fight" about their entire 11 years of marriage that went on late into the
The film's lush score by Stephen Endelman matches perfectly the bright and
happy primary colors of Michael Mayers's cinematography. The vintage
automobiles are so overly perfect that they are like a running joke. Every
car is spotless and looks like it just left the dealer's showroom. Staten
Island in the 50s must have been free of birds and rain.
"I've got talent! I could be somebody!" Buddy screams at Estelle in lines
reminiscent of Marlon Brando's famous ones. Buddy is an everyman character,
whose big dreams may never come true, but realizing his smaller ones may
prove just as satisfying.
TWO FAMILY HOUSE runs 1:44. It is rated R for language and brief sexuality
and would be fine for teenagers.
Copyright © 2000 Steve Rhodes