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[whitespace] 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 he was in the Air Force, the entertainer Arthur Godfrey heard Buddy sing and invited the native New Yorker to audition for The Arthur Godfrey Show.

Under threat from his pessimistic and thoroughly practical fiancée, the would-be-crooner let opportunity go on knocking--only to witness Julius La Rosa sing with Godfrey on a variety show which went on to become a touchstone of the Post-War 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 hyper-critical wife, Estelle (The Sopranos' Katherine Narducci) and her equally acrimonious parents use against him. Buddy, a machinist, just wants a better life. To them, who seem to embrace their own banality, he's just a dreamer perpetually trying to hitch a broken wagon to the stars.

Then Buddy decides to buy a dilapidated 1912 frame house in a poor Irish neighborhood. His plan is simple. He'll renovate the first floor into a bar and he and Estelle will live upstairs in domestic bliss. Considering the fact that he and Estelle make love only once a week (while her parents watch The Perry Como Show) he hopes she'll be thrilled to finally establish their own home, sweet home. Instead, she hits the roof.

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. Hearing this news, a disgusted Estelle declares that Buddy is "pregnant with failure."

Characteristically, Buddy keeps going, working double shifts at the factory and using every spare minute to remodel the bar. Meanwhile his unwelcome tenant "Mary" gives birth (in squalor) to a child of suspicious paternity and is immediately abandoned by her loutish husband. In the pre-free-love, pre-Springer 1950s, this was a tar-and-feather level 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 racism toward the Irish, a largely forgotten chapter in American history. 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.) written and directed by Raymond De Felitta, photographed by Michael Mayers and starring Michael Rispol and Kelly MacDonald, opens Friday in Menlo Park at the Guild; in San Jose at the Towne Theater.

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From the October 26-November 1, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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