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Dreamy Interior, Solid Foundation

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 27, 2000


    'Two Family House' Kelly MacDonald and Michael Rispoli live in a "Two Family House."
(Lions Gate)
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 Eisenhower.

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 the clients.

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 today's perspectives.

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 she's doing.

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.


Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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