TWO FAMILY HOUSE
***/**** Image A- Sound B+
starring Michael Rispoli, Kelly Macdonald, Katherine Narducci, Kevin Conway
written and directed by Raymond De Felitta
***½/**** Image B+ Sound B+ Extras B
starring William H. Macy, Neve Campbell, Tracey Ullman, John Ritter
written and directed by Henry Bromell
by Bill Chambers Two Family House and Panic, a pair of overlooked films hopefully not destined to become overlooked DVDs, have more in common than a passing glance suggests, and their joint failure to earn even a pittance sounds the death knell for independent cinema as we knew it in the early-'90s. These days, only the import indies get a shot at the big time, which would be quite the statement on an improved national tolerance of foreign-language entertainment were such hits as Billy Elliot and Life is Beautiful not as warm and fuzzy as a Care Bear's behind. The market's unresponsiveness to the winsome New York story Two Family House, in particular, generates the following theory: American moviegoers now feel guilty for seeing The Mummy Returns twice instead of something less promoted once; they take the least painful route of cultural redemption by buying tickets to the most domestic thing with accents available, thus developing a distrust of or distaste for the genuine article.
Two Family House is a Staten Island-set postwar period piece about a second-gen Italian-American, Buddy (Michael Rispoli), who has sacrificed a singing career for his unidealistic wife (Katherine Narducci) and isn't about to ditch another of his dreams just because she detests risk. Buddy wants to turn the ground floor of their newly procured home into a bar; Mrs. Buddy, Estelle, is reluctant to move in the first place, and there's a delightful scene in which the neighbourhood pitches in in carting the couple's belongings up the sidewalk from one place to the other--the bed stays made, pillowcases and all. But the first major crimp in his blueprint is not married to him: the place has upstairs squatters in the form of an irredeemable Irish drunkard (Kevin Conway) and his much younger, pregnant bride (Kelly Macdonald). The souse is eventually sobered right up into leaving when the missus gives birth to a baby clearly not of his conception (the boy is black). Buddy, swayed by the racism in the ether, strong-arms the single mother off the premises shortly thereafter.
Guilt-wracked, he later tracks her down at a fleabag motel and offers to put her up in cleaner, safer digs. She's suspicious, but also desperate. Soon, though, they stop spitting resentment in each other's faces, having realized that they're both non-conformists--a pretty brave thing to be in 1950s America. "I just need someone to talk to," Buddy wails outside her window, which leads to a cathartic Saturday afternoon, late-night picnics, and, of course, romance. She, Mary O'Neary, becomes his muse, the antithesis of his companion by matrimony: Estelle attempts to wreck Buddy by hiding notices from the bank and luring him into various contretemps related to his pet project, ostensibly for his own "good." Yet writer-director Raymond De Felitta coaxes a bit of sympathy for this witch: Buddy's agenda is upsetting the Boomer comfort her friends' status quo lives had conditioned her to expect. This is communicated partly through dialogue but mostly through Narducci's faint shift to overcompensatory behaviour whenever Estelle is among members of her sewing circle.
Macdonald, the lovely sourpuss from Trainspotting, neither transcends nor completely justifies her inferred status as international insurance for the producers, the mirror image of Andie MacDowell in the UK's Four Weddings and a Funeral. It's not a ruinous performance, just one telegraphed by Macdonald's ever-straightening frown--betraying how enciphered Mary truly was on the page. We derive pleasure from her burgeoning affair with Buddy as it builds to a climax no less synthetic--and no less invigorating--than, say, The Karate Kid's, because the elements surrounding Mary are in place: Estelle, the perfect foil for their happiness; societal forces (discrimination turns Buddy and Mary into a latter-day Romeo and Juliet); and Rispoli, a magnetic actor who needs his teddy-bear physique to store outsize humanity. Buddy works whether you identify or empathize with him, much like The Full Monty's laid-off steel workers. They want what most of us, deep down, do: the right to pick and choose our own struggles.
Frank Whaley narrates unbilled. It was perhaps Whaley's autobiographical Joe the King that kick-started Two Family House, a memoir of De Felitta's uncle. (De Felitta directed Whaley in the micro-budgeted Café Society, a very different pre-rock-'n'-roll fable.) Yet De Felitta chose to make Mary's grown-up son the storyteller, ergo Two Family House is second-hand nostalgia on-screen as well. The extra point-of-view does not provide any smash-ups between perspectives; what is Whaley's objective if we can already see what he's telling us--unless it's not actually what he's telling us? In other words, De Felitta could've played with that clash of fact and legend that happens when family episodes are passed down, with that device exercised to genius effect in Election known as the "unreliable narrator." Instead, he opts for competent but superfluous voice-over, and we feel coddled by it.
A friend of mine recently informed me that "audiences love narration," maybe because audiences miss bedtime stories with mom or dad. Ignoring my own distaste for play-by-play as well as that I felt no less worked-over by Two Family House than by the typical example of the underdog sub-genre, why wasn't the film acquired by a bigger distributor at Sundance? It won the "Audience Award" there, yet left the festival under the Lions Gate banner. As Lions Gate is an honourable outfit known for riskier fare (they braved Dogma, Shadow of the Vampire, and Love and Death on Long Island, to cite a few), Two Family House doesn't jibe with their implied philosophy. It's possible, then, that marketing perplexed and intimidated them, but word of mouth should've bridged that gap (I wouldn't begrudge anybody of the movie's pleasant manipulations). Sundance plaudits ain't the pop cred they used to be, I guess, and only the majors can afford to give a cheap charmer the push it needs--most of today's so-called "mini-majors" are studio boutique labels: the Buena Vista-owned Miramax (Chocolat), Universal Focus (Billy Elliot), Fox Searchlight (The Full Monty), Sony Classics (Pollock), Paramount Classics (You Can Count on Me), and Fine Line Pictures (State and Main).
Regardless, Two Family House did debut in theatres, even playing a few big venues. Panic inspired, er, panic, in its owner, Artisan Entertainment, once the Orange Julius crowd (i.e., the test screenees) gave it unanimously low scores. That Sundance accolades also failed to shield Panic from this loathsome Hollywood custom cements my statement above; only pieces of committeethink ought to be subject to further committeethink. By all means, "test" the hell out of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider--there are toys and tacos riding on its success. But talk about unreliable: the folks being researched for their knee-jerk reactions to a given preview represent a random sampling, not the target public. And the proceedings are blithely charted by demographics, not by taste. The lone factor that informs your reaction, in Big Researcher's eyes, is age.
I haven't seen the surveys in question on Panic. I imagine that any negativity from teens boggled minds, since the film stars Neve Campbell, late of the trendy Scream trilogy and the young adult-skewing TV sensation "Party of Five". So Panic wound up where unconventional product is free to wear sunscreen: on cable television. I consider this a mixed blessing, for Jeffrey Jur's 'scope photography wound up panned-and-scanned; furthermore, why is mature, beautifully-acted, profound, etc. art considered "unconventional"? The Golden Age of Seventies moviemaking is so far behind us that film companies have the urge to distinguish routine money-grabs from pictures of quality by establishing sub-divisions. Worse, if they didn't do it for us...
Twenty-five years ago, Panic would likely have been considered a film of routine ambitions. Certainly, Donald Sutherland's turn is nothing special compared to what he gave us back then time and again--but on a scale adjusted for deflation, Panic is a modern classic. Because it finally saw scattered theatrical release earlier this year (disqualified for Academy consideration due to its Cinemax premiere), I've no doubt it'll place high on my Ten Best list of 2001. Two quick ironies before we progress: Henry Bromell, a television vet, developed Panic to escape the confines of the small screen, and his shooting style, lots of long takes, prevented post-production tinkering, anyway--the test-screenings were all but rhetorical.
Panic says eloquently what Paul Schrader's Affliction laboured to get across. While Affliction is not exactly Gordian, Bromell's film is less cluttered with plot and therefore seems purer of concept, more archetypal. Sutherland plays the domineering patriarch to William H. Macy's Alex, a married suburbanite father of one. At forty-something, Alex is feeling the noose of the multi-generational family business tightening and his marriage is all tangled up in it, so he visits a shrink (John Ritter, evoking old-shoe comfort with his mere presence) and meets the stereotypical cure for any mid-life crisis in the waiting room: a young, sexy, flirtatious creature named Sarah (Neve Campbell). But it's that Sarah has gone screwy, too, that ultimately appeals to Alex.
The family biz, I should mention here, is murder. Alex kills for a living, whomever he's commanded to by the contents of that dreaded 8"x10" manila envelope you've seen in countless spy yarns but rarely encounter in your daily life. When Panic is not original, it's reverential in that way--Bromell practically invites accusations of derivation, knowing that his film compares favourably to, and is not informed by, American Beauty and "The Sopranos", and Affliction of course. In his introspective DVD commentary, Bromell says that his screenplay grew out of wanting to explore the father-son dynamic--how refreshing to be reviewing two personal films (that share the potent themes mid-life crisis, infidelity, and domesticity, besides). Bromell, a dad himself, paints that fine line between paternal encouragement and brainwashing in flashbacks that encompass Alex's training, from learning to aim to shooting a parked driver, an action met with post-game adulation by Sutherland's proud-papa character.
Why do we regard, moreover accept, Alex, a twerpy, arrested-development case, through it all? He's a good dad. Young David Dorfman invests the role of Sammy, Alex's only child, with a naturalism (miraculously sustained in Bromell's spartan coverage) that keeps him on the same plane as Macy, and Macy's demeanour changes to something profoundly sensitive and protective around his tyke co-star--they have a disquieting, familial chemistry. Alex is imploding because he's trying to stay honest to that one relationship and not impede Sammy's path. Some critics complained that Panic's motive is too single-minded, but this is a film about Freudian mid-life crisis, the most self-interested dilemma there is, and I really admired the various textures Bromell brought to a simple premise. The performances, especially Dorfman's, are deep and lasting, the music and photography aches of melancholy, and the film doesn't get bogged down in sex or violence. Panic has a little more dignity than Two Family House does, although either deserves universal props it never got.
Universal's Two Family House and Artisan's Panic DVDs feature comparable transfers. Two Family House docks on the format in crystal-clear 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, Panic 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. The former has the slight edge on shadow detail, the latter on contrast. It's in a handful (6) of removed scenes from low-grade tape sources that we realize how excellent is Panic's video presentation proper. (Note: most of these deletions are headlined by Campbell and were probably snipped to prevent Sarah's arc from overwhelming or diminishing that of Alex.) Audio for each is Dolby 2.0 Surround, with attention paid to two fine scores and not much else. (Bryan Tyler's for Panic provides ambience on the disc's menu screens.) Two Family House includes a trailer, while Panic features, after a trailer, cast and crew bios, and the aforementioned omissions, an enlightening optional rap session from Bromell during the film proper in which he alternates reflections on the subject matter with notes on technique. Originally published: June 30, 2001.