By EW Staff
Updated October 18, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

In Two Family House, what Buddy Visalo (Michael Rispoli) really wants to do is sing, sing, sing. A moment’s glory — Arthur Godfrey, visiting the troops, encouraged the young man when he was a crooning GI — faded when Buddy married Estelle (Kathrine Narducci), a security conscious bride.

”Buddy is pregnant with failure,” Estelle gossips to her girlfriends as one after another of her husband’s moneymaking enterprises flops; soon he has resigned himself to wage work. But while looking to buy a home, the dreamer hits on one more great idea: He’ll convert the ground floor of a dilapidated two family house into a bar, and he’ll sing, sing, sing!

Raymond De Felitta’s compassionate period piece about an average guy with ambitions that regularly exceed his grasp — brother in spirit to Ralph Kramden of ”The Honeymooners” — is based on an uncle of the writer – director (whose 1995 feature, ”Cafe Society,” was barely seen). This fictionalization, the filmmaker has said, is more of a gently face lifted homage to black sheep averageness than the whole truth about the real man, who died in the late 1980s.

But the charm and art of De Felitta’s gentle domestic sketch expand far beyond biographical borders. The director bathes a very specific time, place, class, and ethnic experience — that of working class Italian American New Yorkers on Staten Island in 1956 — with a warm, clear light. His is ”Sundance-style” filmmaking at its most successful — personal with universal undertones, told with an unobtrusive flair that keeps the story, rather than the storyteller, in the foreground.

”Two Family House” gains momentum when Buddy meets Mary (Kelly Macdonald), the Irish immigrant tenant upstairs he means to kick out; her husband has abandoned her and her newborn son, and she’s desperate. An ethical man whose cockeyed optimism extends to an unbiased decency, even toward abandoned Irish mothers, Buddy finds her a place to live — and discovers in Mary an understanding of his dreamer self bitterly missing at home. ”You think you’re somebody that you’re not!” snaps a frustrated Estelle, prisoner of her own cultural insularity as much as jailer of her husband’s spirit.

De Felitta’s enthusiastic but unpossessive interest in all his characters — from Buddy and Estelle to the local bank officer — extends to the authenticity he brings to the surroundings (shot, with great period detail, in Staten Island, Brooklyn, and New Jersey), as well as to the terrific cast assembled.

Who knew when they made this thing that Rispoli and Narducci would become cult figures for their work on ”The Sopranos,” or that the bartender at Buddy’s neighborhood hangout (Vincent Pastore) would be forever known as Big Pussy? If ”Trainspotting”’s Macdonald, a Kate Winslet lookalike, seems out of place, it’s because she looks like a pretty actress, while everyone else looks… 1956 Staten Island regular. Which is a beautiful thing.