Buddy Visalo is a blue-collar schlep who insists on following his dreams -- or are they schemes?
When he was a mechanic in the Air Force during World War II, he sang in a USO show and a showbiz bigwig offered him an audition when he got out of the service. But upon returning home, his fiancée's family sneered at the idea and he faced an ultimatum: the girl or his stupid (to hear her tell it) fantasy of a singing career.
Deflated, Buddy (Michael Rispoli) gave in and embarked on a mirthless marriage and a string of calamitous start-up businesses, none of which his now-wife (Katherine Narducci) lets him forget -- especially since they're still living with her parents and sleeping in a twin bed.
"Two Family House" picks up just as Buddy has decided to buy and move into a near-condemned ramshackle house with an apartment upstairs. But instead of doing the sure thing -- living downstairs and renting out the apartment -- his plan is to move in upstairs, start renovations and open a friendly neighborhood bar on the first floor (where, by the way, Buddy intends to sing).
If this sounds like a sitcom to you, welcome to the club. I spent the whole movie waiting for it to take a screwball turn. But while the movie does have a sense of humor, it's really more of a life-affirming Americana-lite parable, and the mood is an odd fit for its candy-colored nostalgia ambiance and its oh-so-Italian-American characters.
Rispoli absolutely embodies Buddy's half-beaten perseverance through failure, fatigue (by day he works two shifts at a machine shop) and constant spousal carping. This is a guy who steadfastly refuses to stop believing in himself.
Narducci finds the humanity within Buddy's harpy of a wife without losing site of the fact that she almost takes pleasure in undermining her husband's confidence and seeing him fail. She sees Buddy as this guy she's stuck with and she's trying to make the best of it.
Buddy's life takes a hopeful detour when he finds encouragement in an unexpected place. After moving in to the boarded-up rattletrap that Buddy is determined to make his castle, he serves an eviction notice on his upstairs tenants -- a belligerent old Irish drunk and his pregnant, much younger wife (Kelly MacDonald).
The next day the baby is born and -- surprise! -- is clearly not the Irishman's son. In fact, the child is black -- or half-black anyway. The husband abandons wife and child on the spot, and Buddy's wife insists this is all the more reason to throw the girl out.
But Buddy's heart is too big to put Mary on the street, and over her proud, loud and skeptical protests he rents her a hotel room, then an apartment, in secret. When Mary eventually drops her guard after seeing her benefactor for the upstanding joe that he is, they become friends and she becomes the only cheerleader Buddy has for his aspirations. Of course, it's not long before something more blossoms between them.
Now, I don't know how many movies have been maked about Italian Americans in 1950s New York, but conservatively it must be well into the dozens by now. As such, "Two Family House" feels mighty familiar at times. But writer-director Raymond De Felitta's characters grow on you so effectively it isn't hard to forgive the frequent sense of deja vu.
De Felitta anchors the story with some unusually clever elements that help sweep the more routine elements under the rug. Example: The unseen narrator has a surprising perspective -- it's Mary's baby, reflecting on his memories of Buddy, how Buddy came into his life and what Buddy meant to him as he grew up.
"Two Family House" doesn't have enough such departures to make it memorable, but if nothing else it would make a satisfying, sanguine matinee.