Movie review: Two-family house

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Kelly MacDonald and Michael Rispoli in the filming of Staten Island Two-Family House.

With Michael Rispoli, Kelly MacDonald and Kevin Conway. Written and directed by Raymond De Felitta. Lion’s Gate Movies.

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In line with films as diverse as Saturday night fever and A hard worker come Two-Family Housea charming film about a blue collar worker who wants a little more than his lackluster past provides.

Don’t go to this film expecting a superb portrayal of the Irish in America. Or for that matter, the most compelling Irish accents.

But Two-Family House scooped the coveted People’s Choice Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and is one of the season’s most anticipated independent films.

Located on Staten Island (New York’s long-suffering “forgotten neighborhood”) in the 1950s, Two-Family House chronicles decent factory worker Buddy Visalo (actor Michael Rispoli, in what’s being pushed as a breakout role).

Buddy once had a great chance at a singing career, when TV legend Arthur Godfrey heard him perform during World War II. But Buddy’s traditional wife (Kathy Narducci) wanted him to settle down rather than risk failure. Buddy’s opportunity instead went to crooner Julius La Rosa. “It could have been me,” laments Buddy – echoing Irish boxer-turned-rogue Marlon Brando in At the water’s edge: “I could have been a competitor.”

When Buddy comes up with the brilliant idea of ​​buying a large old house and converting it into a tavern, with himself as the main attraction, his wife allows him to indulge – knowing that Buddy will end up failing, as always.

Buddy’s house, however, comes with tenants Jim O’Neary and his heavily pregnant wife Mary, old turf. Jim (played by American actor Kevin Conway) is an insufferable and abusive drunk. Mary (Glaswegian Kelly MacDonald) does a Maureen O’Hara update, slamming both her husband and Buddy wildly, in a breathless brogue.

The O’Nearys refuse to leave the premises. Buddy goes to see his buddies wondering what to do. One of them (Vincent Pastore, “Big Pussy” from The Sopranos) is determined to break the record for the number of times “mick” can be spoken on screen. (As in “You know the micks, they always want credit but never pay”.)

But when Buddy forces the situation, Mary has her baby – who comes with a big surprise, firing Jim O’Neary for good.

It’s all pretty funny, if you don’t mind watching caricatures (based to some extent on reality) of Irish and Italian Americans. (Also be prepared for a heavy dose of racism.)

Two-Family House heats up when it becomes clear that Buddy – guilt-ridden, fed up with his henpecking wife – is falling in love with Mary.

MacDonald settles into her role as a youngster, well beset by Mary, after an abrasive introduction. Watching Mary struggle as she orders food and wine from an Italian deli is good comedy.

Still, while it has the good qualities of similar films (one can’t help but think of Ernest Borgnine’s classic Martinor more recently A Bronx Tale), Two-Family House is hampered by similar disadvantages. It’s a long (one might say anti-Irish/anti-Italian) tradition in American novels and movies to portray these ethnic neighborhoods as so backward that an enlightened resident (Buddy, in this case) must get out or die. Even Irish-Americans like James T. Farrell, in his 1930s Studs Lonigan novels, sometimes fell into this trap. (Most recently, watch the Spike Lee movie Sam’s Summer and his, uh, indelicate presentation of Italian Americans in the Bronx.)

It’s not that Two-Family House doesn’t pick up on the troubling undercurrents that exist in this community. But if these enclaves are as suffocating as they are so often portrayed, one wonders how so many people have made it in America.

Either way, this strays from the best Two-Family House. Shot entirely on location (in Staten Island, as well as Bayonne, New Jersey), director De Felitta’s eye for detail is as good as his ear for dialogue. Its evocation of the 1950s is remarkable, given that no decor has been recreated. After a summer of boring smash-’em-ups, Two-Family House is that rare thing – a mature and moving story. ♦

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