Two Family House
review by Elias Savada, 20 October 2000

On the verge of the World Series between the Amazing Mets and their cross-town rivals, the Yankees, the boroughs of Queens and The Bronx have their own backyard heroes and all New York City is shouting, fully aware that when the last out is made, the Big Apple will have professional baseball’s bragging rights, win or lose. But the city already has a world-class winner in Two Family House and a lovable loser in Buddy Visalo, a perpetual dreamer stepping up to the plate in Raymond DeFelitta’s poignant grand slam story of ambitions lost and gained among ethnic outcasts of 1956 Staten Island. It’s been that same forty-four years since New York had its last Subway Series, back when Italian-Americans and Irish immigrants were having their own battles in this forgotten borough. The writer-director’s romantic flashback to the decade before then-Richmond County would boast longest-in-the-world honors with the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, he brings together lovers in search of the American Dream, heartwarming us with a tale of desire spanning two floors in a dilapidated house, where an open window might have offered its inhabitants a hint of the crowd’s roars wafting over from Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field. Two Family House has little to do with baseball (and with the way sports pictures are performing at the box office, that’s a plus), although there are angry bats in the hands of those with little racist minds that Buddy needs to tame.

The World Series is actually two seasons away when we first meet Buddy in the Spring of 1956. His wife and in-laws have already shackled his career as a entertainer, when Arthur Godfrey spotted him in the aftermath of World War II and offered him fame and fortune. Instead he’s stuck with his wife, her parents, ten years of Perry Como, and a dead-end job in a baked goods factory, while someone else (Julius LaRosa) got the singing gig. For Buddy, life is just a string of missed opportunities: a limousine service with no customers, a house-painting business that succumbs to the wallpaper design sensation, and a disastrous pizza-delivery stint years ahead of its time. All his earnest dreams turn to nightmares until he moves, with his reluctant wife Estelle, into a broken-down home that he envisions as home and hearth to a prosperous downstairs tavern. But through the quirks of the city’s antiquated tax and housing laws, upstairs resident Mary O’Neary, a pregnant young Irish woman fresh off the boat, and her abusive, alcoholic husband Jim, are proving tough nuts. And when a handful of Buddy’s wise-cracking Rheingold-guzzling friends decide to take an intolerable swing at intimidating the Irish, Buddy has a change of heart. A very strong change.

Sheila Jaffe and Georgianne Walken are the casting directors for the film and The Sopranos, and although Two Family House doesn’t feature any wiseguys, there are quite a few familiar faces that one might call this Sopranos Lite. Michael Rispoli, Katherine Narducci, Vincent Pastore, and Sharon Angela all switch over from the celebrated HBO series to offer fine performances. Rispoli is especially effective with the lead, twisting his imperfect character (who buys a toy gun for Mary’s child) through emotionally charged moments and ultimate personal triumph, while Narducci packs a nice wallop as his heartless wife, a vengeful gorgon who retreats to the bosom of her equally unenlightened parents. As the evicted couple, Kevin Conway gives a marvelous, albeit stereotyped, spin as the ever-drunken Irishman with a dash of unexpected aggressiveness, with Kelly MacDonald (Trainspotting) glowing as his proud Catholic wife (with a brief lapse or two) struggling against double ostracism.

Filmmaker Raymond DeFelitta seems to have an affinity for New York and the 1950s. His Oscar-nominated short Bronx Cheers covers similar themes (post-WWII dreams), while his Café Society (1997) is an ode to the real-life Fifties tabloid sex scandal at a swank Manhattan watering hole. So he’s back in his half-century-old element directing his second feature and making a fine go of it. He maneuvers solid performances from his cast and paints an often radiant romance of what is perceived as a misguided relationship by cynical "friends" that border on being card-carrying McCarthyites.

The only problem I had, and people not familiar with Frank Whaley and the color of his skin won’t consider this all that questionable, is his uncredited narration (he starred in DeFelitta’s other feature) as the voice of Mary’s grown son.

DeFelitta’s film is a bright little blue-collar morsel (especially the production design) in an otherwise nearly forgettable year at the movies. He succeeds by sticking with what he does well and offers up an intelligent crowd pleaser. Heck, it won a well-deserved award for that (the audience award for dramatic feature at Sundance). One moment bookmarks the graciousness of the film: Mary’s fortifying demeanor calms Buddy on a peaceful afternoon in her sunlit apartment, curtains fluttering in an late day breeze while birds beckon away the couple’s pretensions. It’s as warm as someone who’s just had three glasses of Chianti.

Yes, drink a toast to Two Family House. Cheers.

Written and
Directed by:

Raymond DeFelitta

Michael Rispoli Kelly MacDonald Katherine Narducci Kevin Conway Vincent Pastore Sharon Angela




  Copyright © 1996-2005 by Nitrate Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.