It's not easy to memorialize a societal shift on film. Knowing what happened doesn't solve the conundrum of how to present it: As knowing comedy? As bittersweet memoir? As scathing period piece?
In his "Two Family House," writer/director Raymond De Felitta ("Bronx Cheers," "Café Society") skirts the question. Unwilling to decide on one type of movie to make, he instead makes them all. And most are worth watching.
Set on New York's Staten Island in 1956, the film initially stakes its claim as a suburban diary of the Barry Levinson school. Heavily metaled vintage autos pass through ugly neighborhoods, their passengers a cast of working-class heroes and zeroes. One is Buddy Visalo (Michael Rispoli of Summer of Sam), a factory worker and inveterate dreamer. (The character, De Felitta has said, is based on his uncle.)
With an aborted singing career and stints as the owner of a limousine service and a pizza-delivery empire under his belt, Buddy hits on a new plan to escape the 9-to-5 grind: He purchases a dilapidated home whose ground floor he can turn into a cozy tavern. The upstairs area will be the living quarters for himself and his wife, Estelle (Katherine Narducci of TV's "The Sopranos"), a realist who remains skeptical of her husband's schemes. She periodically voices her concerns to her friends over lunch at a local diner. We're in Levinson land, all right.
The focus is altered when Buddy meets the married couple he's inherited as tenants. The alcoholic Jim O'Neary (Kevin Conway) and his pregnant wife Mary ("Trainspotting's" Kelly Macdonald) have no intention of vacating the premises, and an obscure renter's law protects them from eviction, even for nonpayment of rent. Doomed to suffer the O'Nearys' constant squabbling and bad habits, Buddy appears to have wandered into the trademark dark comedy about mismatched, battling clans. (Remember the Belushi bomb "Neighbors"?)
At the 30-minute mark, Mary gives birth to a half-black baby boy, and Jim vanishes in disgust. The Visalos are left to endure this blight on their good name -- the Irish tramp's mixed-race offspring is the shame of the community. Estelle sides with the gossips, but Buddy comes to sympathize with Mary's isolation. Their relationship takes the film into another, familiar domain, that of the taboo-defying pairing that's A Decade Ahead Of Its Time. ("Love Field," anyone?)
Following these drastic course changes is easier than it should be, thanks mostly to some wise and heartfelt performances. Rispoli receives the lion's share of significant moments -- his character is our usher into the new age of tolerance the infant will one day inhabit. Narducci, however, makes at least as much of Estelle, whose nagging barely conceals a palpable terror that the reliable social order is crumbling around her.
Only Macdonald is overwhelmed by the material, her doe-eyed performance overlooking the exotic possibilities Mary represents for Buddy. Instead, she seems to be playing the younger, innocent sister of the character she's been given.
De Felitta thrashes from technique to technique, employing voice-over narration when it's convenient and forgetting about it when it isn't. There's a brief dalliance with the grainy, home-movie mode of cinematography that now shows up everywhere except in home movies. Far from being a flaw, the stylistic wanderlust supports De Felitta's thesis that progress is fitful and disordered. What did the latter half of the 20th century look like? Here's solid evidence that it was a little of this and a little of that.