Enough with the Italian families already!
What we have here, by accidents of scheduling, is the arrival of two oh-those-nutty-Italians pictures, with extended, rambunctious families, dominating grandmas, gruff card-playing grandpas, lots of pasta and vino, lots of vaguely hostile bolts of intergenerational vitriol hurled across the age line, a slightly twisted younger set trying to find its way and one prominent non-Italian trying to pass.
Moreover there's almost an interpenetration of casts. Vincent D'Onofrio, who was heartbreakingly good as the fat boy Gomer Pyle in Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket," is in both films. The star of one film is Annabella Sciorra, who was discovered by the director of the other in her first film, also about a nutty Italian family.
The better of the two films is "Household Saints," Nancy Savoca's new work that opens today at the Charles. Savoca is the director who discovered Sciorra in "True Love." In her film, D'Onofrio is the butcher Joseph Santangelo, married to Catherine Falconetti, played by the prominent non-Italian Tracey Ullman, whom he won in a pinochle game sometime back in the '40s in New York's Little Italy. It's rumored that he cheated, because to win Falconetti he had to draw a perfect hand. Only God could deal such a hand.
Well, that's the rub: God did deal the hand. The movie, in a strange and affecting turn, becomes an authentic fable of sainthood and religiousity. But first it's . . . a nutty Italian family film. Like stops at the stations of the cross, the film shunts through familiar tropes of old-country peasant superstition, played out through Vincent's grumpy mother and Catherine's good-for-nothing father as they feel each other out in colorful ways, a lot of it involving food, a lot of the food very red. Then Mama has to express her disapproval of Catherine by intimidating her into a miscarriage -- a terrible scene reveals, as never before, the product of such an issue.
It's once the daughter Teresa is born that "Household Saints" veers off into new territory. Teresa (originally Rachel Bella and then Lili Taylor) turns out to yearn for nothing more than to give her life to God. Happily, Savoca doesn't play this as pathological, though the secular world around Teresa judges it so. Savoca's attitude is: You are what you are, saint or sinner. Teresa grows in the world as she grows from the world and, prevented from entering a convent, finds other ways to be nearer to her Lord. The movie has a weird, almost fable-like feel, continually arresting.
"Mr. Wonderful" is more conventional, and, of course, is also set in New York. In it, D'Onofrio is the nice guy pharmacist who falls for Annabella Sciorra. The prominent non-Italian is Matt Dillon, who is Sciorra's abandoned husband. She's the beatnik, he's the exemplar of old country values: She decided she needed a college education while he was content to work for ConEd. Now, divorced and in love with Mary-Louise Parker, he's bitter because he's got to pay so much alimony to keep his ex-wife in school.
When a chance comes to invest in a business project with buddies at work, he needs to find relief from the alimony. The only way is to locate a new husband for Sciorra, who is currently throwing herself away on a married professor, played with radiant smugness by William Hurt. So the movie is about his search for a Mr. Wonderful for Ms. Not-so-wonderful.
The problem with "Mr. Wonderful" is that it's Mr. Slowpoke. Nothing seems to drive it forward. The director, Vincent Minghella, appears to think there's a lot more charm beaming off the screen than there really is. But really nobody in the film is
terribly appealing, from Dillon's poutiness to Sciorra's whininess to Hurt's self-adoration. And, worst of all, the film depends completely on a sense of bittersweet electricity between Dillon and Sciorra, who seem eternally to occupy different planets. Really: a film about an electrician with no electricity anywhere to be found.
Starring Matt Dillon and Annabella Sciorra
Directed by Anthony Minghella
Released by Warner Bros.
Starring Vincent D'Onofrio and Tracey Ullman
Directed by Nancy Savoca
Released by Fine Line