Two Family House

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Two Family House

Populated with enough ethnic stereotypes to stock several off-color jokes, the first reel of Raymond De Felitta's Two Family House works like a ruse, setting up broad caricatures and tired clichés only to slowly and subtly undermine them. An early showdown between a group of hot-blooded, working-class Italian thugs and a drunk, belligerent Irishman seems to brazenly court protest, but De Felitta handles these combustible elements with sensitivity and tact. In order to get at the prejudice that divided American ethnic groups in the mid-'50s, he boldly stamps it out into the open, showing the difficulties that arise when a middle-aged Italian tries to break from the racism ingrained within himself and the culture. Played with insistent, dogged charm by The Sopranos' Michael Rispoli, he's a dreamer who's been haunted by failure ever since his wife (Katherine Narducci, also from The Sopranos) squelched his impractical plans to become a singer. Though all his subsequent ventures never panned out, including an ill-conceived limo service on Staten Island and a painting business during the wallpaper craze, Rispoli buys a dilapidated house with plans to convert the downstairs into a cozy neighborhood bar. First, he has to evict the current tenants, a grizzled Irish drunk and his pregnant wife (Kelly MacDonald), but he's faced with a tougher problem when she gives birth to a half-black baby and her husband flees at the sight of it. Left without money or prospects, MacDonald is kicked out anyway, but Rispoli's nagging conscience inspires him to come to her aid. Their tentative kinship, hidden away from the Montagues and Capulets of the outside world, express De Felitta's deeply personal message in warm, humane terms, alleviating some of the clumsiness surrounding it. Two Family House is riddled with minor annoyances: The on-the-nose narration is voiced by the baby as an adult, Rispoli's wife comes across as irredeemably shrill and suffocating, and there are occasional sentimental lapses. But the winning, low-key sweetness at its center, informed by De Felitta's thoughtful script and the quietly powerful lead performances, resonate well beyond its flaws.

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