' Cinema Romantico: Two Family House

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Two Family House

The strains of Raymond De Fellita's "City Island" still reverberating through my head I Netflixed his 2000 film, "Two Family House", a prize winner at Sundance, which, like "City Island", is set in New York (though in the 50's this time out) and based on De Fellita's own life - his Uncle Buddy, specifically, who in the film is played just about perfectly by Michael Rispoli.

When Buddy came out of the Navy he had dreams of being a nightclub singer, and, in fact, we find out he is pretty good. But these dreams were not nurtured by his wife Estelle (Kathrine Narducci), not a bad woman, really, but the sort of person who views each and every single dream conjured up by anyone as a pipe dream. Instead Buddy took one of those soul-crushing jobs at a factory and put into motion various harebrained, moneymaking schemes that failed to make money, flaming out spectacularly.

His latest scheme involves buying a shabby two family house of the title so that he and Estelle can live upstairs while turning the downstairs into Buddy's Tavern. The inevitable problem? The tenants living upstairs already have no intention of leaving. Or paying rent. This would be Irish boozehound Jim O'Neary (Kevin Conway) and his pregnant wife Mary (Kelly Macdonald, yes, the Kelly Macdonald). Buddy tries to get them to leave. Jim is a bit, shall we say, stand-offish. He knows his rights and, more importantly, he knows his loopholes. So it comes to pass that Buddy and a few neighborhood pals from the bar he frequents turn up one morning with baseball bats to execute an eviction and, well, when you consider Mary is pregnant I am fairly certain you can guess what event chooses to transpire simultaneously.

The baby, however, turns out to be half black. Hmmmmmmm. This does not sit well with Jim. Or the neighborhood.

This set-up is handled well but the film gets better as it moves along. After De Fellita wisley moves Jim out of the picture this means Buddy will have to kick Mary and baby out so he can get to building his bar. Yet he checks up on them. He buys them a place to live. He visits. He helps out when he can.

As operatic as "City Island" was, "Two Family House" aim is more blue collar. You won't pick this up at first. The photography illuminates Staten Island and the art direction is superb. These are working class folks but often the images look too good to be true. The story, however, isn't too good to be true since apparently - as stated above - it was true. And it shows. Buddy is far from perfect. It's why he evicts Mary a few days after she's had a kid. He's just a tiny bit racist, maybe even a tad sexist, and despite proclaiming on several occasions that he's never cheated on his wife in 11 years, well, I told you, he visits Mary at her place. But he's not a bad man. He's not. He's a wonderfully illustrated character who simply wants someone in his life to accept the fact he has dreams. Like he sees something in Mary that keeps bringing him back around I think the viewer will be able to see something in Buddy that they recognize. The end is lovely but it's also a lot more difficult than you will expect. This is refreshing and makes it rather moving.

After these two films I declare that De Fellita has a truly great film in him. I hope he makes it.

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