Given: Frank Pesce, Jr., (Anthony
LaPaglia), the youngest son of a New York trucker, is the hero of George Gallo's savvy and affecting new comedy 29th Street, based on a true story about a young man who must come to terms with his family and himself.
Prove: Frank Pesce, Jr., is extremely lucky.
1. The circumstances of his birth. Frank's mother goes into labor in a Bingo parlor far from the Pesce home and has to be rushed to an unfamiliar hospital for delivery. That very night, the familiar hospital burns to the ground. Frank, the burbling tyke in the nursery, has no idea he's escaped certain death.
2. The matter of his draft status. During the Vietnam War, "when guys from the neighborhood were coming back in boxes," Frank bravely drives down to the selective-service board to do the American thing. In the doctor's office, Frank is asked to read the seventh line on the eye chart. "Getzrplfts," he says blithely. Two weeks later, an envelope arrives declaring him psychologically unfit.
3. His girlfriend's brother Jesus. "Don't go out with that girl Maria," Frank's father (Danny Aiello) warns him. "She's from Spanish Harlem and no matter what else, Italians and Puerto Ricans don't mix well." But Maria is beautiful and Frank is lovestruck. "Besides," he tells his father, "her brother Jesus loves me like his own." Outside of Maria's apartment building, Jesus demonstrates his love by plunging a knife between Frank's ribs. Has his luck finally run out? Of course not. Doctors not only patch him up, but also find a tumor that turns out to be an early-stage cancer. Frank survives, of course. The lucky always do.
Convinced? Here's one more.
4. Frank actually wins the lottery.
Yes, that's right. The New York State lottery. The inaugural $6.2 million Empire State lottery, in fact, held on Christmas Eve 1976. That should settle the issue beyond any shadow of a doubt. He's luckier than Lindbergh and Luciano combined.
Now here's a tougher one: Prove that Frank's luck is a mixed blessing.
Actually, you don't have to worry about that. 29th Street, which begins with Frank's lottery windfall and then works through his charmed life in flashback, assumes the burden of proof. The subject of the film - how incredible luck reverberates through a working-class family - is an intriguing one, and the characters are scripted and acted with such skill that their story remains compelling throughout.
What could be bad about luck? Well, first of all, it might make your own father resent you. Like his son, Frank Sr. is a dreamer, but he doesn't have the good fortune to live his dreams. Rather than rely upon an inexplicable golden touch, he has to borrow it from a local mobster named Louie Tucci (Vic Manni). And though he is proud of his boy's luck, he can't fathom why the rest of his family must suffer through a life filled with disappointment while the prodigal son merely sits back and lets Lady Luck pull him through. Pure, blind, dumb luck wreaks havoc on any notion of a work ethic.
Directing from his own script, Gallo (who penned the screenplays for Wise Guys and Midnight Run) serves up slice of life after slice of life of the zesty and deep-dish Italian Family. After a shaky beginning (which suffers from some ill-conceived, gratingly cute scenes of the eight-year-old Frank, Jr.), 29th Street gets on track and stays there. As Frank Sr. - a man of passions who is overbearing as often as he is endearing - Aiello consolidates his specialty by turning in another excellent performance as an imperfect but big-hearted patriarch. Lainie Kazan is equally good as his wife, and LaPaglia (who was the mob suitor in Alan Alda's Betsy's Wedding) works well as a bright-eyed cross between Alec Baldwin and the young, young (and have we mentioned young?) Al Pacino. In a bizarre life-shadowboxing-art twist, Frank's brother Vito is portrayed by the real-life Frank Pesce, the man who really did escape death by stabbing, the man who really did win the lottery.
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Most comedies about luck these days deal with bad luck; the comedy of the charmed life is perceived as too deceitful. It is Gallo's most impressive achievement that he keeps his film edgy and avoids the backslide into cloying sentimentality. Throughout most of the film, Frank Jr., has not yet delivered on his ultimate promise by hitting big in the lottery - even when he finally does, his victory is tainted by complication - and making ends meet is shown to be a far more equivocal process than most movies suggest. Frank Sr.'s gambling, which worsens as his family's bank account shrinks, is accepted as a fact of life. In another sequence, Frank Sr. and Vito cook up an insurance scheme to dispose of the family's second car - although they are driven to despair when the car, registered in Frank Jr.'s lucky name, continues to surface despite their efforts. Mobsters materialize from the shadows, demanding payment. Although the Pesces try to keep their sunny sides up, the future looks dim. Whether exploring the luck of the Italian or making more general excursions into working-class life, Gallo is clever and successful, and the Pesces squabble and banter in the fine tradition of spirited movie families. (When Italian households stop feeding the cinematic stereotype for volatile familial warmth, hell will have already frozen over and children of some new, less demonstrative ethnicity will be skating on the ice.)
Despite its winning buoyancy, 29th Street suffers slightly from its obvious indebtedness to other films. Watching Frank Jr. lament his lottery victory in the opening sequence and then spend hours recollecting the strands of his own life, it's difficult to shake the ghost of Frank Capra. Shifting fortunes, a happy ending, and a story that comes to a head on Christmas Eve no less; why not just opt for Miracle on 29th Street and send the copyright lawyers scrambling for their Filofaxes? Despite its derivative drawbacks, Gallo's film gleams throughout, and proves that dusting off old ideas can succeed when the polish and the polisher are of uncommon skill.
Written and directed by George Gallo; with Danny Aiello, Anthony LaPaglia, Lainie Kazan, Frank Pesce, Robert Forster, Ron Karabatsos, Vic Noto, Alexander Fehr Blue, and Joe Franklin.