House of Race Cards
Italian-Americans may be glad to note that Two Family House, which centers on the Italian community in Staten Island, features not a single gangster, gun or ring to be kissed. They might be even happier if the film had also chosen not to depict the men as fat, pasta-eating, quick-tempered racists with whiny, obnoxious wives. Ah well, baby steps, baby steps.
Michael Rispoli (The Sopranos) is Buddy, a middle-aged working stiff who lost his one chance at singing fame when he decided to get married instead. Since then, he's been determined to be his own boss, leading to a number of harebrained schemes that include a limo service for a borough small enough to walk around and a house-painting service in a community that favors wallpaper designs. As his wife Estelle (Kathrine Narducci, also of The Sopranos) puts it, "He's pregnant with failure." But Buddy's convinced his latest scheme will work: He's purchased a turn-of-the-century house dirt cheap. It's big enough for two families: He intends to live upstairs, and make the downstairs into a bar. (His biggest dilemma is whether it should be called "Buddy's Place" or "Buddy's Tavern.") Estelle hates the building, but given Buddy's track record, she simply shrugs and tells her friends, "Don't worry about it. We'll be in and out in a month." Naturally, there's a small hitch: The place is already being rented to an Irish couple and, under an ancient bylaw, they can't be evicted for a year. It doesn't make matters any more pleasant that Jim (Kevin Conway), the man of that family, is an aged drunk with a penchant for urinating on front porches and beating his pregnant wife, Mary (Kelly Macdonald of Trainspotting).
Two Family House initially feels like a homegrown version of such Anglo-Irish working-class comedies as The Full Monty and Waking Ned Devine, with its whimsical proletariat protagonist fighting for a simple dream against ridiculous obstacles. But just when we think we've got a bead on it, as the conflict between comically obnoxious tenant and mild-mannered landlord gets under way, the film turns into something else. First, said conflict is instantly defused, as Mary gives birth and her husband promptly flees. And then the movie turns serious. Mary and her baby are made the butt of ethnic jokes everywhere, and Buddy, feeling guilty, tries to find her another place to stay. Meanwhile, Estelle becomes progressively more aggressive about defusing Buddy's bar idea before he has a chance to fail, which, in her mind, is inevitable.
If you can't see where this is headed, keep in mind that the actress playing Mary is younger and better looking than the actress playing Estelle. Add in some sentimental crooning and a switch to grainy film to indicate that love is in the air, and soon all the comedic energy is sucked out of the story. Conway takes much of it with him when his character bails, but the sappy trappings that director Raymond De Felitta piles onto the burgeoning-romance story line kills any spark that remains, despite the best efforts of the cast to keep it real.
It's hard to talk much more about the film without giving away a significant plot twist that occurs about halfway through. Suffice it to say that it involves racism, and the playing of repeated racial slurs like "coon" and "pickaninny" for laughs. The film is set in the '50s, when such remarks were more socially accepted, but the humor falls flat after a while. Oh, those racists -- aren't they just adorable in their ignorance? Depending upon your race, the answers to that question likely range from "no" to "hell, no."
That said, it should be noted that Two Family House won an audience award at Sundance. It should also be noted that mainstream audiences probably have a higher tolerance for sap than many critics, and the film's ultimate message is that love conquers prejudice. Still, the prejudiced folks walk away with only a mild slap on the wrist, if that. The film is apparently based on the life of the director's uncle, and that might explain the somewhat disjointed nature of the story; real life seldom conveniently condenses itself into three acts. Nonetheless, because it is presented as fiction, it will be judged as fiction, and it comes up short.
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