Two Family House (United States, 2000)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Note to readers: this review contains spoilers. While I do not believe the revelation of certain plot points will in any way compromise the viewing experience, those who wish to see Two Family House without having previous knowledge of key elements would do well to bail out now and return after they have seen the film.

Apparently, when gangsters die, they don't simply disappear, they show up in low-budget independent films. Or at least that's the impression one might get from watching Raymond De Felitta's personal period piece about defying social conventions to pursue love and a dream - because it seems like half of the cast is made up of familiar faces from TV's The Sopranos. There's Michael Rispoli (the late, great Jackie Aprile in The Sopranos) as Buddy, Vinny Pastore (the late, great Big Pussy) as Angelo, and Kathrine Narducci (the still-living Charmaine Bucco) as Estelle. The storyline and characters couldn't be further from the world of The Sopranos, but fans of the TV series will feel like they already know the players.

Two Family House had its world premiere at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival, where it walked away with the Audience Award for Best Drama. With its sweet, understated romance and crowd-pleasing theme of triumph through dogged persistence, it's not hard to understand why viewers in Park City reacted favorably to the film. Two Family House is a winner - unfortunately, it could have been an even bigger winner if it wasn't for an omnipresent, annoying, redundant voiceover narrative that consistently interrupts the film's flow. A few words at the beginning and end would have been fine, but De Felitta felt it necessary to have the narrator exhibit verbal diarrhea throughout the entire picture. Worse still, 90% of what he says is needless information or a repetition of things that are obvious from dialogue or the characters' actions.

The time is 1956. The place is Staten Island. Buddy Visalo (Rispoli), his head bursting with grand plans of self-employment and wealth, has just bought a dilapidated two family house with the intention of turning the downstairs into a tavern and using the upstairs as an apartment for him and his shrewish wife, Estelle (Narducci). There are a few complications, however. In the first place, Estelle hates the idea of her husband running a bar. Convinced that the venture will fail (like all of his other "schemes"), she does everything in her power to accelerate that failure. In the second place, the upstairs is occupied by a belligerent, perpetually drunk Irishman (Kevin Conway) and his pregnant wife, Mary (Scottish actress Kelly MacDonald), who are unwilling to give up their tenancy and have the law on their side.

Things change when Mary gives birth, and the child turns out to have much darker skin than his supposed father. Mary's husband leaves her, and Buddy, pressured by his wife, evicts her. Feeling remorse, however, he rescues Mary from the dive where she is forced to go and sets her up in a cozy, low-rent apartment where she and the baby can live in relative peace. Finding Mary's company more pleasant than his wife's, Buddy becomes a regular visitor, and, although their friendship begins platonically, circumstances force them closer together until the inevitable happens.

Despite the voiceover, I found Two Family House to be thoroughly charming. The romantic relationship that forms the film's core is presented on a level that's a notch above what we usually see in movies. There are some serious cultural and social elements that De Felitta has to juggle, and he does so without sweeping them under the table. Mary is ostracized by almost every segment of society because her baby is biracial. The closer Buddy gets to her, the more he risks. It would be bad enough if she was just Irish, but her status as the unwed mother of a half-black child puts her on par with a plague carrier. Yet Buddy feels a sense of kinship, and perhaps more. He admires her strength and spirit, and, most importantly, she supports and encourages his dreams while his wife is interested only in shooting them down. The most touching moment in the film comes not when Buddy does the inevitable and confesses his love to Mary, but when he collapses weeping on the lawn outside her window, desperate not for a sexual encounter (as she initially supposes), but for someone to talk to.

For Mary and Buddy to be together, he has to sacrifice much, yet one senses that in giving up his wife and friends, Buddy has gained far more than he has lost. Estelle is his anchor, but, instead of keeping him in place, she is dragging him under. He has resented her since she forced him to turn down an audition for The Arthur Godfrey Show because she didn't consider show business to be an honorable career. Now, she wants him to work an 8-to-6 shift at the factory like all of her friends' husbands. She doesn't share Buddy's dreams; she despises them. Theirs is not a happy marriage. (Estelle is so blind to Buddy's needs that she mistakenly thinks the problem is sex, when, in reality it's a lack of communication and support.)

Rispoli and MacDonald develop tremendous chemistry. Fierce, fiery, and independent, MacDonald (who has had small parts in a number of U.K. imports, including Trainspotting and My Life So Far) lights up the screen. Rispoli finds the proper note for Buddy, who is presented as a rather nondescript, low key man with a wellspring of conflicting passions simmering beneath the surface. Narducci's part is pretty much a stereotype, but she plays it well enough to get the audience to feel a sense of active dislike. (If we're supposed to sympathize with Estelle, neither Narducci nor De Felitta did their jobs.)

One of the most refreshing aspects of Two Family House is that it doesn't feel the need to go through all of the obligatory (and predictable) plot contortions mandated by most romances. Buddy and Mary don't endure the Big Breakup caused by the Big Misunderstanding, which, in turn, is followed by the Bigger Reunion. Their relationship has its share of complications, but they're not the run-of-the-mill stumbling blocks that we see in nine out of ten mainstream films. That's only one of many reasons why Two Family House is worth seeing. Forget the voiceover and concentrate on what the characters are saying and doing, and the payoff will be worth the effort.

Two Family House (United States, 2000)

Run Time: 1:54
U.S. Release Date: 2000-10-20
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1