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SEE AL. SEE AL ACT

The abundance of golden light flooding James Foley's Two Bits lets you know right away that you're in trouble. Nostalgia trouble. That light, which never lets up, is the same color as sap, and there's nothing quite so sappy as a memory movie in which an aging man looks way, way back on the day when he suddenly had to grow up and believes with all his heart that the audience is going to find it as important as he does.

In this case, it's an August day in 1933, right in the middle of the Depression. The place is South Philadelphia. The boy is a twelve-year-old named Gennaro Spirito. And the old man in the smudged hat who's snoozing and sunning in the backyard (when he's not dispensing pieces of ageless wisdom) is the boy's grandfather. The grandfather has decided that this is his last day on earth. The grandfather is also Al Pacino--unshaven and disguised behind four or five pounds of makeup but still chomping on the scenery without ever moving from his tattered easy chair. You think, a little uneasily, of Marlon Brando out there in the tomato garden in his final scene of The Godfather. And then Pacino does the awful thing--he does Brando.

The Two Bits of the title is the twenty-five cents little Gennaro (Jerry Barone) is trying to raise so he can go to the movies that night at the brand-new La Paloma theater. He sings on a street curb. He tries to tidy up a local doctor's cellar, with unexpected results. He hits up the corner grocer for a nickel. You just know that, one way or another, this spunky kid with the big liquid eyes will find a way to that double-feature--Depression or no Depression.

The whole thing's as sweet as spumoni and stuffed with TV-movie bathos. Even if you want to admire Two Bits's feeling for family and respect for the old ways, it's not easy: Here's a movie that jerks your chain so hard you feel like fighting back. Let's see: All in one day, a neighborhood woman commits suicide, Grandpa has a vision of heaven, a boy has to make a strange visit to an old woman, and his long-widowed mother (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) starts complaining about the change of life. The whole thing is narrated by Alec Baldwin, in one of those artificial, older-and-wiser voices that kids can't stand and grownups don't quite believe.

The surprise here lies in the backgrounds of the filmmakers. Director Foley is best known for the screen version of Glengarry Glen Ross, David Mamet's tough, philosophical play about con men hawking phony real estate, and for After Dark, My Sweet, a sunbaked film noir based on a hard-boiled Jim Thompson crime novel. Two Bits's screenwriter is Joseph Stefano, who 35 years ago adapted Psycho for Alfred Hitchcock and later wrote and produced The Outer Limits TV series.

What these two are doing in the middle of a schmaltzy wallow like this one is anybody's guess. What Pacino's doing here is clearer: He's Acting again, and instead of a character, all you see is his Technique with a capital T, just as you did in Scent of a Woman.

Does Al get to die in the end? And at some length? What do you think? Does the kid get to go to the movies? Hey, in the bygone Philadelphia of golden Italian-American memory, you can have it all. If you want it.

 
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