House of Race Cards
Italian-Americans might be glad to note that Two Family House, which focuses on the Italian community on 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 them as fat, pasta-eating, quick-tempered racists with whiny, obnoxious wives. Ah, well--baby steps, baby steps. And let's not harp on the soundtrack, which features the same one or two pieces of opera heard in every movie ever made about Italian-Americans, alongside Godfather-style strings and Sinatra-esque crooners. The mere fact of the lead character's being unthreatening automatically makes the film different from the norm.
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. Since that time, 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 (Katherine 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 proletarian protagonist fighting for a simple dream against ridiculous obstacles. But just when we think we have 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, 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 (previews and other critics may have already spoiled it, but just in case...). Suffice it to say that it involves racism and the playing of repeated racial slurs such as "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? Having said all that, it should be noted that Two Family House won an audience award at Sundance (then, what doesn't?). 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 prejudicial 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.
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