Review/Film; Portrait of Frank and the Other Pesces
What kind of person throws snowballs at a church on Christmas Eve, especially after he’s just learned his winning lottery ticket is worth more than $6 million? On the evidence of the sentimental family comedy “29th Street,” about a lottery winner named Frank Pesce Jr., it’s a person who connects lottery winnings with love.
The film, which greatly embroiders the story of Mr. Pesce’s life, creates an O. Henry-style ending in which hitting the jackpot allows Frank to express his feelings about his big, blustery father, who happens to have a gambling problem. Doing its very best to give Mr. Pesce’s story a movie gloss, the film makes sure that this all works out for the best.
Although “29th Street” takes its title from Mr. Pesce’s Queens neighborhood, it was filmed in Wilmington, Del., which may offer some idea of its overall authenticity. Mr. Pesce’s real story is only a loose basis for the film’s warm, jokey portrait of an Italian family, which seems to be modeling its behavior on many other Italian families from many other (and often better) films. But authenticity is unimportant here anyway, and Mr. Pesce’s story is hardly sacrosanct. What matters is that this film work on its own broad terms, and at times it does. Danny Aiello’s broadly attention-getting performance as the domineering Frank Pesce Sr. does a lot to hold this story together.
Beginning with the snowball incident, “29th Street” follows Frank Jr. to police headquarters, where he tells his story to a roomful of rapt police officers. (“I got all night,” one of them says, though it does happen to be Christmas Eve.) In the ensuing flashback, it is revealed that Frank has always suffered from having a lucky streak, one that works only in backhanded ways. When he dates a beautiful Puerto Rican girl and is stabbed by her brother in Spanish Harlem, for example, his good luck means that the doctor tending to his stab wound discovers a nearby tumor and removes it early enough for Frank to beat his cancer.
The film details other, comparable examples of how Frank’s luck works, which makes better sense of what very nearly happens when he tries the lottery. It also observes Frank Jr.’s visit to his draft board, Frank Sr.’s attempt to grow a perfect postage-stamp lawn and various other homespun, suitably cute neighborhood scenarios. Most of this goes down easily, and the film only occasionally shows its maudlin streak. Mr. Aiello, though solidly good here, should avoid any dialogue in which he describes himself as “a dreamer.”
Also in “29th Street” are Anthony LaPaglia, nicely unflappable as the young Frank, and often serving as a straight man for those around him; Lainie Kazan, talking a blue streak as Frank’s zesty, blowsy mother, and the real Mr. Pesce, who plays his own brother Vito and is thoroughly comfortable on camera (since he entered the first New York State lottery in 1976, Mr. Pesce has become a character actor). The film was written and directed by George Gallo, a former screenwriter (“Midnight Run”) determined to stay midway between real life and Hollywood invention.
The film “29th Street” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It includes considerable profanity. 29th Street Directed and written for the screen by George Gallo, based on a story by Frank Pesce and James Franciscus; director of photography, Steven Fierberg; edited by Kaja Fehr; music by William Olvis; production designer, Robert Ziembicki; produced by David Permut; released by 20th Century Fox. Running time: 101 minutes. This film is rated R. Frank Pesce Sr. . . . Danny Aiello Frank Pesce Jr. . . . Anthony LaPaglia Mrs. Pesce . . . Lainie Kazan Vito Pesce . . . Frank Pesce Sgt. Tartaglia . . . Robert Forster PHilly the Nap . . . Ron Karabatsos Jimmy Vitello . . . Rick Aiello Needle Nose Nipton . . . Paul Lazar
Queens man wins 6 million in lottery. Warm, jokey family portrait with O. Henry twist.