Two Family House (2000) ***
Directed and written by Raymond De Felitta. Photography, Michael Mayers. Editing, David Leonard. Production design, Teresa Mastropierro. Cast: Michael Rispoli (Buddy Visalo), Kelly Macdonald (Mary O'Neary), Katherine Narducci (Estelle Visalo), Kevin Conway (Jim O'Neary), et al. A Lions Gate release. 104 minutes. PG-13. At the Art.
I know little about writer/director Raymond De Felitta except that: his first film was a short, Bronx Cheers, which had an Oscar nomination. His second film was the feature Cafe Society which debuted at the 1995 Cannes Festival in the Directors' Fortnight series. Its US release was super-minimal as RDF distributed the film himself. He co-wrote the 1998 Shadow of a Doubt, then came Two Family House which received the Audience Award at Sundance 2000.
What I do know is that RDF had a beloved uncle called Buddy; that Buddy is the inspiration for Two Family House, not in every fact and detail but enough to make this into a veristic movie, verismo being an Italian term for everyday realism in life applied to art. And that Uncle Buddy would be proud of his nephew.
The setting is Staten Island in 1956 (and a bit beyond), among Italian-Americans. There is an Irish community too but the two groups keep apart, have no kind words for each other.
Buddy, says RDF, was "a lovable loser in pursuit of an elusive dream." His first dream was in the Navy, where he once sang nicely O Sole Mio before the famous Arthur Godfrey. Buddy was hoping to make it on Godfrey's TV program. But his wife Estelle discouraged his venturing outside the more modest Italian lifestyle and occupations. Buddy, a factory worker, went on to more schemes that failed, then to his final dream: to buy a two-story house where he and Estelle would live upstairs, while he would transform the downstairs into Buddy's Bar.
He finds a dilapidated old place, but before he can begin to give it shape he discovers that upstairs live Jim, an older, foul-mouthed Irish-American drunkard and his far younger, pretty and most pregnant Irish-Irish wife Mary. There's no way to get rid of Jim who has refused to pay rent for years yet can defy eviction thanks to a peculiar local law.
When Buddy and his buddies menace eviction by force, the hubbub precipitates the birth of Mary's child. It is a special case which I cannot disclose, but which results in Jim's disappearance. This is soon followed by Mary's eviction. Yet soft-hearted Buddy arranges for her to leave the tawdry hotel she moved to with the baby. He rents better quarters for them, and gradually he and the lass becomes friends, to say the least.
What follows is a relationship and a string of events which are at the same time simple but also complicated, even complex developments. All this is redolent of Italian-American working class realism, types, valiant drinks at the local bar which is like a club for Buddy's friends, and of enough cigarette smoke to induce global warming.
I will not dwell on the march of time within the plot and spoil the viewer's fun. However I should mention that several of the actors are familiar to many from TV's The Sopranos; that the actress who plays the Irish Mary is, in fact a Scotswoman; that Estelle is a Class C termagant; and that there are no Mafiosi, gangsters and others of that ilk around, not even in mentions or allusions.
The last point is refreshing. I remember when Frank Sinatra (whose ties with the underworld were blatant) went to bat accusing the media of caricaturing Italian-Americans as members of organized crime, and --I believe-- as screen clichés even if they were ordinary people. I am afraid that Sinatra had a point. Movies still used to stereotype minorities until some years ago. Especially Italians. For comic purposes some stereotyping was innocuous, but then the films made it clear that these were blatantly farcical exaggerations.
Think of Sig Ruman who played outrageous Teutonic characters, always the butt of jokes: Herman Gotlieb (A Night at the Opera), Dr. Steinberg (A Day at the Races), Dr. Wuthering (Love Crazy), Heinrich Stubel (A Night in Casablanca), Dr. Eggelhoffer (Nothing Sacred), Colonel Ehrhardt (To Be or Not to be), Schultz (Stalag 17) and more. Then think of the plethora of Italian-Americans over the full spectrum of Hollywood films, as often nice but always "realistically amusing" types.
The backlash nowadays is political correctness which tends to eliminate colorfulness, even when it is justified. I think Sinatra would have approved how Two Family House tells its tale "like it is" and with genuine warmth.