It's All Relative

Two Family House is a vaudeville turn that comes off as fine and mellow (and warm) as the John Pizzarelli ballad used by writer-director Raymond De Felitta to ease his camera's descent from the heavens down to Staten Island.

Set in the year of Our Elvis, 1956, this well-wrought indie (De Felitta's second feature, after the 1995 Café Society) concerns a frustrated crooner. Having been scouted by broadcast personality Arthur Godfrey while he was in the army, Buddy Visalo believes that, had he followed his star, he could have been Julius La Rosa. Instead, he works in a machine shop, lives with his in-laws in the shadow of the Bayonne Bridge, and times his lovemaking to The Perry Como Show. As played by Michael Rispoli, Buddy has a quizzical baby face and a head full of dreams. He's not especially bright, but he's generous and, as it turns out, gutsy. Over the voluble objections of wife Estelle (Katherine Narducci, who, like Rispoli, has played a recurring character on The Sopranos), Buddy buys a derelict frame house on the outskirts of his Italian neighborhood, planning to live upstairs and transform the ground floor into his own personal nightclub, Buddy's Tavern.

The kid stays in the picture: Chang in Yi Yi.
photo: Winstar Cinema
The kid stays in the picture: Chang in Yi Yi.


Yi Yi (A One and a Two)
Written and directed by Edward Yang
A Winstar release
Film Forum
Opens October 6

Two Family House
Written and directed by Raymond De Felitta
A Lions Gate release
Opens October 6

Populated by acerbic women in cardigan sweaters and posturing men in porkpie hats, Two Family House conjures up an affectionately cartooned vision of Eisenhower-era white-ethnic working-class New York. The colors are slightly overbright, the squabbling elaborately volatile, and the stereotypes affectionately broad. Rheingolds are ubiquitous (although the requisite horde of cap-gun-toting kids is conspicuously absent). There's a hyperreal home-movie quality that De Felitta, who based his script on a family story, accentuates in having the film's narrator, like Tristram Shandy, begin by describing the events leading to his birth.

Having become an unwilling landlord, Buddy is compelled to evict an extravagantly deadbeat tenant (Kevin Conway) complete with pregnant missus (Kelly Macdonald, a veteran of Trainspotting). The process proves problematic, but the feckless O'Neary vanishes of his own accord when his Mary gives birth to an unmistakably mocha-colored baby. Variety, which reviewed Two Family House when it was shown last January at Sundance, expressed some concern for the ongoing Irish-Italian insult-fest—never more comic than in O'Neary's intentional mangling of Buddy's name—and the racial banter that Mary's baby precipitates. But these attitudes, which will scarcely shock anyone familiar with the films of Martin Scorsese or Spike Lee, are explicitly presented as expressions of insularity and fear. Buddy courts excommunication when he retrieves the splendidly querulous Mary from a flophouse and secretly rents her a room above a neighborhood salumeria. "You're all a race of pimps!?" she incredulously explodes, unaware that her baffled benefactor in particular has no idea of his intentions.

A fairy tale that presents love as a case of mutual enchantment, Two Family House is not only uniformly well acted, superbly designed, lovingly lit, and sensitively scored, it's as romantic as it is funny. This deft and touching urban fable about the neighborhood legend who "threw his whole life away" is like discovering a long-lost episode of The Honeymooners—the best New York movie Woody Allen never made.

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