Dreamy Interior, Solid Foundation
By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 27, 2000
There's an old-fashioned Hollywood feel to "Two Family House," Raymond De Felitta's
audience-charmer about dreaming big in the conformist era of Dwight
Kelly MacDonald and Michael Rispoli live in a "Two Family House."
Set in Staten Island in the 1950s, this period movie feels like a classic, delicately textured cross between "Marty" and "The
Honeymooners," with an indefatigable dreamer named Buddy Visalo, his
long-suffering wife, Estelle, and their daily squabbles over money, the future and
everything else. De Felitta, whose short film "Bronx Cheers" was nominated for an Oscar in 1992 and whose debut
feature "Cafe Society' premiered in the Director's Fortnight at Cannes in
1995, has truly come into his own.
Buddy, played with unforgettable preciousness by Michael Rispoli,
wanted to be a singer once. And when Arthur Godfrey heard him sing and
offered him a spot on television, it looked like his show business
career was set. But Estelle (Katherine Narducci Charmaine Bucco in "The Sopranos"),
Buddy's fiancee at the time, pooh-poohed the idea in favor of getting
married and working a regular job.
In Buddy's eyes, she's been a candidate to go to the moon ever since.
Denied his deepest wish, and in spite of his carping partner, Buddy
has been launching a series of doomed schemes to get him in the money,
like opening a limousine service in a lower middle-class neighborhood.
Finally, he hits on the one thing that in his mind can't fail: a
mom-and-pop neighborhood bar in an Irish neighborhood. This place will
have everything, the bar downstairs, the living quarters upstairs and,
get this, a little corner with a microphone where Buddy can croon for
Naturally, Estelle is less than thrilled.
She has her reasons. The place is a mess. They're borrowing more than they can afford to build the establishment. And upstairs, there's a deadbeat, belligerent Irishman named O'Neary
(Kevin Conway) and his younger, pregnant wife, Mary (Kelly MacDonald),
who refuse to budge.
No problem, says Buddy. He keeps pressing the tenants to leave, with
his Italian American buddies (Vincent Pastore, Anthony Arkin and Saul
Stein), standing menacingly downstairs. And he begins his dream
project: Buddy's Tavern, complete with a spanking new jukebox.
"Two Family House," which won the Audience Award at this year's
Sundance Film Festival, is more than a slickly done, atmospheric
return to the postwar era.
It tackles subjects normally considered taboo for movies made during
that period. The story, which deals straightforwardly with racism,
miscegenation, adultery and consumerism, is a fascinating combination:
a movie with an almost Capraesque heart and pristine, almost stagey
lighting schemes, that addresses uncomfortable moral issues with
Mary's baby, it turns out, isn't completely white. Appalled, O'Neary
leaves, never to be seen again. Which leaves Buddy with the indelicate
task of throwing out a destitute woman and her newborn.
Although initially horrified that she slept with a black man, Buddy
gets over his reaction and comes through for her. But Estelle and
Buddy's friends remain disgusted by her deeds. Which means Buddy has
to be a little secretive about helping
Mary out with money for a new place.
"It remains an undisputed fact that every man has at least one moment
of total selflessness in his life," says the narrator, who turns out
to be that newborn baby telling this story years later.
But is it selflessness?
"Why are you here?" asks Mary, when Buddy keeps returning to see how
From this point, "Two Family House" takes off in its own, inspired
direction. It's magical and innocent in spirit, with delicate jazz
songs on the soundtrack by the John Pizzarelli Trio. Yet it's also
unsqueamishly direct about the issues it raises. Buddy's great heart
is the moral fulcrum of the movie. He's a straight shooter, a man of
his time, but also a man of his nature, who will not rest when it
comes to seeing something through. And if that puts him in hot water
with everyone he knows, well, so be it with regret. In the end, Buddy
embodies and defines the whole movie, a fantasy about listening to
your own truths, not the highfalutin wisdom of the crowd.
"Two Family House" (R, 104 minutes)
Contains obscenity, sexual situations and racial epithets.
At the Cineplex Odeon Avalon 2 and Shirlington 7.