Two Family House
Reviewed in July 2009 / Click Here to Comment
Director: Raymond De Felitta. Cast: Michael Rispoli, Kelly Macdonald, Katherine Narducci, Matt Servitto, Kevin Conway, Vincent Pastore, Michele Santopietro, Rosemary De Angelis, Anthony Arkin, Saul Stein. Screenplay: Raymond De Felitta.


Photo © 2000 Lions Gate Films/Filbert Steps Productions
Raymond De Felitta's Two Family House scooped the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival in 2000, besting among other films Kenneth Lonergan's You Can Count on Me. Both films would seem to appeal to a similar appetite for modestly scaled domestic drama with generous sprigs of human comedy and a doting, careful, largely but not entirely nostalgic portrait of American life in a specific time and place. Anecdotal though it is, this audience-polling outcome raises the question not of whether Two Family House is a "better" film, which I feel certain that it isn't, but of why a largely overlapping audience might like it better. This question already interested me insofar as I only rented Two Family House on the strength of the effusive word-of-mouth it generated among the handfuls of people who saw it in the small town where I lived when it debuted. This was two years before My Big Fat Greek Wedding became the all-time grossing champ in the history of this town's alternative theaters, much to the chagrin of the proprietors, and though Two Family House bonks you on the head less often than Nia Vardalos's Greek-American panto-farce does, Raymond De Felitta's basically affectionate portraiture of the Irish and the Italians cohabitating on Staten Island in the 1950s works a similar sleight-of-hand in catering to an under-represented demographic of real proud folks.

Staten Island has been an offscreen punchline more often than it's been a setting in American movies. It's where New Yorkers move when the filmmakers are eager to squeeze them out of the script, and it's where characters hail from if the screenplay needs you to know that they're a bad match for the plucky romantic heroine. In Working Girl, it's almost a redundant coefficient to Melanie Griffith's tragic hairdo to let you know what a tough uphill climb Tess has got ahead of her. Two Family House has underdog appeal, then, just by planting its feet in atypical soil and liking it, and by showing a sense of soft-edged humor about it, so that even viewers who have no direct link to the Fifth Borough or to Italianness or to Irishness or to the American 1950s can feel cheerfully invited to the party. Of course it helps that the actual story pushes the underdog button, too: Buddy Visalo (Michael Rispoli), a frustrated crooner who has run all of his previous entrepreneurial schemes into the ground, alights upon a faltering Staten Island property and plans to convert the ground floor into a pub where he'll delight all the patrons as well as himself by singing his heart out to an accompanying jukebox. His wife Estelle (Katherine Narducci) seems none too eager to flee her parents' coop where she and Buddy still live, seizing on the half-hour of Perry Como's TV show in one charming scene as a rare opportunity for lovemaking. As far as Estelle is concerned, even this beats living in an attic apartment and being "turned into a barmaid" by the guy who is supposed to love her. In exchange for her wifely resilience and toil, he is obliged to compensate her with the kind of resignation and boxed-in thinking that allows her to file reports on their heroically normal marriage, whenever she meets up with her gabby friends down at the diner.

Writer-director De Felitta and actress Narducci both hold Estelle in a kind of abeyance as Two Family House gets warmed up, leaving open the possibilities that she will be either a ceaseless nag against Buddy's ambitions or a rounded character with her own reasons for being supportive but skeptical. The jury is also out on just how much singing talent we're meant to concede to Buddy, and there's a lingering ambiguity, too, half sophisticated and half just fuzzy, about whether Buddy's neighborhood pals (including Matt Servitto and The Sopranos's Vincent Pastore) are a colorful school of clownfish or a pack of unenviably stunted males, from among whom we would applaud Buddy's gradual separation. The most engaging passage in the film, for me, was the collective effort by these men and their wives to move Buddy and Estelle into their new home, for better or worse—a sequence of collective homemaking that captures just how implicitly you rely on your friends and neighbors even in the act of leaving them. We don't, however, miss the signs during the same sequence that these Italian joes have entrenched biases against the Irish who dominate the Visalos' chosen enclave. We expect a bumpy acquaintance among the new landlords, the badgery drunk upstairs (Kevin Conway, Sean Penn's troll of a father-in-law in Mystic River), and his very pregnant, notably younger wife Mary (Kelly Macdonald of Trainspotting and No Country for Old Men). Bumpy it is, and not least when Mary's infant emerges from the womb with a much darker complexion than anyone else on screen, leading to some barstool chuckles and some puns on the "black Irish."

That all of these personal and communal threads will get more and more tangled is the presumptive premise of a film like this, but the tangling in Two Family House never seems as intricate or unexpected as its rangy, novelistic set-up implies. Buddy and Mary emerge as the main characters, but Rispoli is not a very detailed actor, and Macdonald stays opaque and rather flatly peevish for too long. Neither the cast nor the direction demonstrate the inventive verve that can often charge even as safe a vehicle as Moonstruck with real snap-out-of-it pizzazz, plus an oasis here and there of genuine feeling and persuasive introspection. Two Family House misses most of this. It ambles along without much to power itself beyond a belief in the achievability of deferred dreams and a desire to gratify at least some of its characters with happy endings. Happy enough, anyway. Meanwhile, Two Family House is one of the most boringly lit movies I've ever seen even within its independent, scrape-a-budget-together echelon, erring not on the side of moody or "edgy" underlighting as films like this sometimes do—and that in itself is a relief—but on the side of Everybody Loves Raymond over-lighting, so that the movie plays even more like television than it already would, likeable but undistinguished, and ultimately afraid of the blooming subtleties within its own premise that initially seemed to attract it, and us.

Is this what people want, even at an expensive film festival: proof that movies can be as comfortable as television, with most of their interesting crevices hauled into the light, and all of their characters consigned to pre-set structural purposes, Ally or Enemy, Ally then Enemy, Enemy then Ally, even at the cost of consistency and drama? It's obviously snobby to hold one's preferences above others', confusing any line between judgment and taste and appeal, and I don't want to do that. Besides, Two Family House was as beloved by most critics as it was by its tiny but devoted audiences, so I stand to learn something from its fans. I just couldn't convince myself to join them, despite the movie's occasional pleasures and admirably atypical environment. Unfortunately, the look, pace, and structure of the film stop feeling elegantly restrained and pass into something like boilerplate mediocrity. The film is obliquely eager to please, even as Rispoli's Buddy starts bucking convention and the direction appears to allow Macdonald to be less "sweet" than a more obvious film would demand.

Broadly speaking, a fitfully disguised but deep conventionality starts driving De Felitta's film, obscuring the characters and simplifying the story in ways that mitigate the very qualities on which Two Family House stakes its claims to being pleasurable, even endearing. I know it's churlish to pit the Lonergan film too relentlessly against De Felitta's, but You Can Count on Me, despite establishing a "smaller" scenario than House does, takes more tonal risks and never stops committing to the complexities of the characters, the ways they would necessarily react to given situations, the obligations to make a film out of a tale that is clearly very personal to the maker. Lonergan largely scuppers the characters' romantic possibilities and forces a closing farewell that a lot of viewers may not desire, even as he maintains a basic upbeatness and a feel for the quotidian nuances of real life. It's not quite a valentine to anything, though the actors sure make it lovable, and the simple but strong colors, its intimate camera angles, the plausibly affordable T-shirts and work clothes, and the crisp edits and compressed scene structures help it look good, look fabulous, look right up there on the movie screen. Whereas Two Family House, however chummy and digestible, started looking a little small even for my TV. The gestures toward 50s-period felt under-budgeted but still a bit showy, like Nia's father spraying us with Windex. The cinematography opts more often for wide, presentational angles—the house viewed laterally from the street, a character or a duo as silhouetted through a curtained window, medium shot after medium shot in serial shot/reverse—so that you watch a story about the characters' feelings without often entering into them. And the script's sense of the possible trajectories for these characters seemed oddly limited: together or apart, happy or sad, failure or permanence.

I don't think De Felitta is blind to these tendencies. Repeatedly, and at opportune moments, he conjures figures who defy our expectations of personality or tonal temperature, like the not-awful adoption agent who arrives to collect Mary's baby, or the reedy, ratty drunk who totters into the finale, passing along a story that only its listeners will grasp as insult. These moments, as written, directed, and performed, bring a welcome depth to what are otherwise a compulsory plot contrivance and a fairly pat conclusion, and they put you back in mind of the more sensitive, measured passages of the film, including the very funny but ever so slightly chill-inducing montage when Buddy's dreams of being a singing star were first quashed, and then banished from conversation by his tsk-tsking wife until she has some hilariously tortuous percentage in bringing it back up. But there aren't, finally, enough moments like that to sufficiently vary the movie's pitching regimen: mostly change-ups, with curveballs and sliders you could tally on one hand. The mechanistic flavor of the writing and the images make the narrative's outcome more certain, just as the story events and social conflicts stand ready to make it less so. With so many cold, cynical, assaultive, inept, or insulting movies out there, Two Family House is the wrong kind of film to pick on, but for all I'd heard it described as one of those special little movies that imparts its own sense of private discovery, the movie I saw felt basically determined, at the expense of both story and character, to back away from any big moves and to rely instead on recycling the familiar. That's exactly what Buddy tries so hard not to do in Two Family House, but it's the fate to which the movie relegates him anyway. C


Awards:
Sundance Film Festival: Audience Award (Dramatic)
National Board of Review: Special Mention for Excellence in Filmmaking

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