Two Family House
"Two Family House" is supposedly the true story of writer-director Raymond De Felitta's uncle Buddy, who bought the building in Staten Island in 1956. But whether it's literally true or not, the film is a witty, touching, gorgeously remembered work about people who are at least as real as you and I.
It opens during World War II, when Buddy Visalo (Michael Rispoli) is in the army and sings at a talent show where Arthur Godfrey hears him and invites him to audition for his program when he gets home. But his fiancée Estelle (Katherine Narducci) says she'd be mortified to have him do it, and Julius La Rosa gets the job instead. Over the next ten years, as they live mostly with her parents, Buddy tries many things, from house painting to pizza deliveries, but every business venture is undercut by Estelle, who thinks he's built for failure and insists that he keep his salaried job at a machine shop. (One of the many little beauties of this film is that Estelle, who could have been written and played as a simple virago, is revealed here as an earnest, limited person who actually loves Buddy and wants what's best for him in her eyes.)
Then, in 1956, in what might be Buddy's last try, he buys a decrepit two-family house, which he will fix up so that they will live upstairs and he will open a tavern downstairs, at which he will be the host and resident crooner for his patrons. Once again Estelle is mortified, but Buddy begins the work. Except that the present upstairs tenants don't want to leave. They are middle-aged Jim O'Neary (Kevin Conway), an abusive, drunken bum -- there is no other way to describe him -- and his young wife Mary (Kelly Macdonald), who is very pregnant. Just as Buddy and his friends come by to evict them forcibly, Mary goes into labor and Estelle helps deliver the baby, who turns out not to be her husband's, a revelation that sends him away for good.
It is the baby, in fact, who narrates the whole film from today's perspective, and De Felitta has used that narration to give objectivity and resonance to what we see on screen. And what we see is a growth and transformation in Buddy, as he comes to understand his own life and that of Mary and her child. This limited, inarticulate man, whose first impulse is to get rid of Mary and the baby, finds he cannot quite do it, and puts them up in a little room around the corner, which he pays for himself. We in the audience are in the grip of a story that, small as it is, has enormous resonance for us all, for surely our own lives and wishes and fears are no different then Buddy's and Mary's, and even Estelle's. The film is a miracle of observation of the ways in which life moves us around its chessboard.
Not only is De Felitta's writing and direction calm and assured and appropriate in every way, but his actors are miraculous in the way they embody their roles. No one here has movie-star looks, no one tries to 'act' their role; from first moment to last, the film shows us how our own lives might well be lived, if we happened to have been born Italian in Staten Island. And even more, it shows us how such a life might well be our own. In a very bad year for films, "Two Family House" is a gem that would honor any year. It deservedly won the Audience Award at the 2000 Sundance Festival.