'Two Bits': Fine acting can't hide grand allusion

February 02, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

Avoiding the temptation for cheap puns that a title like "Two Bits" coughs up, I can only say the movie isn't worth a whole lot in real dollars and cents.

The physical production is the handsomest thing about the film, a loving work-up of a working-class Philadelphia neighborhood in the 1930s, where, in one of the trim houses, what remains of the Spirito family struggles glumly to survive the Depression.

Except that the glumness hasn't set with the boy, Gennaro (Jerry Barone), who, far from noticing the economic chaos about him, instead is focused entirely on raising the necessary lucre (two bits, you're surprised?) to get into the newly opened movie house, where his dreams will be given shape and reality. So the movie revolves around his attempts to raise the money, primarily from his crusty old grandpa (Al Pacino). What he doesn't know is that Grandpa is dying.

What he also doesn't know is that his grandpa is imitating a movie that was made in 1973 but that in movie time won't happen until the mid-'60s. In other words, the oddest oddity of this odd little picture is that Pacino bases his performance on a certain part of Marlon Brando's performance in "The Godfather," evidently with the full connivance of director James Foley.

But why? The movie doesn't touch on any issue of "The Godfather" except, generically, on an Italian-American family struggling against difficulties. There's no crime or suggestion of the glamorous demimonde: It's simply an ill-considered allusion that confuses rather than clarifies issues.

The specific sequence that "Two Bits" calls up is the great scene where Brando's aging Vito frolics in the garden with his grandson, his ancient face lit with delight at the boy's antics, as he entertains by inserting an orange-peel bridge to create an idiotic grin. But then, with the camera focused on the toddler, we see him collapse out of focus in the rear of the frame. Great scene! Why don't they make 'em like that anymore? How hard can it be?

Anyhow, one look at Pacino with makeup cranking his skin downward like the pull of triple gravity, a vest, a shirt, a little tie, a little fedora, sitting in the splendors of the garden in a folding chair (sorry, I can't recall if he's barefoot like Brando), and you know instantaneously: death in the garden. And indeed, it turns out to be Grandpa's last day.

So the movie amounts to a double chronicle: We know that Gramps will pass, but we also know that Gennaro doesn't. How could he? It's 1933. They haven't made "The Godfather" yet.

The movie follows Gennaro's gentle adventures to raise the money, hoping to draw poignancy from Gennaro's unknowing brushes with the complexity of Grandpa's life.

The story emerges from the memory of the distinguished screenwriter Joseph Stefano, who wrote "Psycho" and "Black Orchid." It was, however, directed by angry young man James Foley, who did such memorable work with "Glengarry Glen Ross" and "After Dark, My Sweet." He's a tough guy, and the values of the film seem uncomfortable to him.

Both Jerry Barone and the great Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (as his hard-pressed mom) are excellent, and Pacino is, of course, very good himself. After all, he didn't get eight Oscar noms for nothing. But somehow the movie never recovers from the weirdness of its central conceit.

'Two Bits'

Starring Al Pacino and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio

Directed by James Foley

Released by Miramax

Rated PG-13

** 1/2

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