Two versions of American dream: one warm, one grim

Countless stories have explored the idea of "the American dream," but the subject is so rich that artists keep returning to it. It gets very different treatments in two new movies.

The biggest selling point for Two Family House is probably its cast, headed by Michael Rispoli and Katherine Narducci, mainstays of "The Sopranos," the popular TV series on HBO. Here they play Buddy and Estelle, a couple with a mildly troubled past.

Buddy once had a chance to become a TV crooner, but he let it pass to marry Estelle and settle into a solid working-class routine - a decision he's regretted ever since. He still hopes for a more exciting life, and eventually his dream takes a new form.

He buys a run-down house big enough to set up his own neighborhood saloon - a place where his friends can congregate, his income can swell, and he can provide the entertainment with his vocal stylings.

The only obstacle is the couple who lives there, one of whom is a pregnant, abused young woman. Buddy tries to help her, but runs into complications when this new (white) friend gives birth to an adorable (black) baby, sparking bigoted eruptions in almost everyone they know.

This plot might easily have turned melodramatic or preachy, but writer-director Raymond De Felitta dodges such dangers with his openhearted attitude toward his characters and their flawed, but basically decent, temperaments.

Requiem for a Dream takes its cue from Hubert Selby Jr.'s fierce novel "Last Exit to Brooklyn," which etches a hard-edged picture of the wages of sin. The movie's main characters are New Yorkers with different kinds of addictions: an aging woman hooked on fantasies of fame, and two young men hooked on drug dealing as a route to easy cash.

This is the American dream at its darkest, and director Darren Aronofsky probes it with relentless energy. Solid acting helps it stay earthbound when the filmmaking gets addicted to its own flashy cynicism, but the picture sometimes seems as dazed and confused as the situations it wants to criticize.

Aronofsky made an impressive showing in his 1998 fantasy "Pi," a blend of scientific and religious ideas. That brand of human-scaled cinema suits his talents better than the hyperactive gyrations of this grim "Requiem."

Both films have R ratings and contain foul language. 'Two Family House' also contains adult situations, and 'Requiem for a Dream' contains sex, violence, and drug use.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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