[Written for Seattle Post-Intelligencer]
There’s an engaging modesty to Raymond De Felitta’s Sundance Audience Winner Two Family House, a sweet little romantic drama set in the insular Italian and Irish neighborhoods of 1956 Staten Island and narrated with the conversational ease of a bar story.
Buddy (Michael Rispoli), a good-hearted but dissatisfied teddy bear of a guy, has a talent for crooning but gave up his shot at showbiz years ago under pressure from his fiancée. Now married and slaving away at a blue-collar day job, his life since has been a series of failed business schemes. “He’s pregnant with failure,” his chagrined wife Estelle (Katherine Narducci) tells her friends.
Buddy’s latest scheme involves buying a firetrap of a house in an Irish neighborhood, turning it into a bar and living in the apartment upstairs. One problem: the building’s tenants, a belligerent alcoholic Irishman (Kevin Conway in a colorfully sassy turn) and his young pregnant wife Mary (Kelly Macdonald), refuse to leave.
What looks to be building to a farce of battling neighbors takes an unexpected turn when Mary’s baby arrives “made of darker stuff,” the offspring of a brief affair with a black man. Her husband bolts, the neighbors recoil in horror, and Buddy (under Estelle’s hostile demands) boots her into the street, but he can’t shake his feeling of responsibility for the homeless girl.
Thus an unlikely friendship begins in clashes and verbal fireworks and turns into a gentle romance while Buddy confronts his own prejudice and smothering cultural values.
Rispoli is accepting and warm as Buddy, a guy hungry for his piece of the American Dream. Kelly Macdonald’s Irish dander and thick brogue (she sounds like she’s just stepped off the boat) give her a scrappy spirit that melts a little too completely in the second half, but she sparkles even when she’s not sending off sparks.
Estelle could easily be the villain of the drama as she undermines Buddy’s efforts and ridicules his ambition, but Narducci grounds the woman’s frustrations in old-fashioned conformism. “You think you’re someone you’re not,” she admonishes him, unable to embrace his leap of faith and step outside her modest working-class culture.
Inspired by the true story of writer-director De Felitta’s uncle, the film shines in the understanding portrait of one man’s rebellion against the stifling values and judgmental intolerance of his community. De Felitta is uncharacteristically generous to his working-class chorus. The bar pals and the coffee-klatch wives are loyal and supportive but trapped by racism and their own clannish prejudice.
Yet there’s no bitterness in this portrait. In the face of intolerance, Two Family House lovingly celebrates the triumph of love and acceptance over prejudice.