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[whitespace] Michael Rispoli, Kelly MacDonald
Landlord-Tenant Relations: Michael Rispoli and Kelly MacDonald get a new lease on life in 'Two Family House.'

Dream House

A kindly dreamer gets a new lease on life in 'Two Family House'

By Nicole McEwan

IN 'TWO FAMILY HOUSE,' writer/director Raymond De Felitta's poignant and utterly charming romantic comedy, a hapless dreamer from Staten Island purchases an investment property and winds up getting a whole new lease on life. The year is 1956. Buddy Vasalo (The Sopranos' Michael Rispoli) is an everyday Joe who suffers with the knowledge that it didn't have to be that way. While Buddy was in the Air Force, Arthur Godfrey heard him sing and invited the native New Yorker to audition for The Arthur Godfrey Show. Under threat from his thoroughly practical fiancée, the would-be-crooner let opportunity go on knocking--only to witness Julius La Rosa sing with Godfrey on the variety show that went on to become a touchstone of the postwar era.

All the while, Buddy's dreams falter but never die. While living with his in-laws, he launches a painting business and a pizza-delivery service. Both fail, a fact that his hypercritical wife, Estelle (The Sopranos' Katherine Narducci), and her acrimonious parents use against him. To them, Buddy's just a dreamer perpetually trying to hitch a broken wagon to the stars. Then Buddy decides to buy a dilapidated house in a poor Irish neighborhood. He wants to renovate the first floor into a bar, while he and Estelle will live upstairs in domestic bliss. Buddy proceeds, only to discover a drunken Irishman and his much younger, heavy-with-child wife (Kelly MacDonald) squatting on the second floor. Due to a legal loophole, he cannot evict them.

Characteristically, Buddy keeps going. Meanwhile his unwelcome tenant "Mary" gives birth (in squalor) to a child of suspicious paternity and is abandoned by her loutish husband. In the 1950s, this was a genuine scandal. Fortunately, the browbeaten Buddy takes pity on the stranded immigrant. Soon the two underdogs form a tenuous friendship built on their mutual alienation.

De Felitta nails all the 1950s details, from cars, clothes and slang, right down to the widespread and casual pre-JFK prejudice toward the Irish. His acutely observed screenplay has an authenticity and natural narrative flow--a rarity in an age of script doctors and demographic-targeted cinema. Small surprise--the film is based on his uncle's life. With wonderfully modulated performances by all three leads and a story that is sweetly inspirational without being saccharine, Two Family House is what used to be called a sleeper--a little film that could. Like Buddy, its never-say-die protagonist, it's got a lotta heart--and ultimately, as the film proves, that can only be a good thing.

Two Family House (R; 104 min.), directed and written by Raymond De Felitta, photographed by Michael Mayers and starring Michael Rispoli and Kelly MacDonald, opens Thursday at the Nickelodeon in Santa Cruz.

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From the December 6-13, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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