A mild, nostalgic Depression-era memoir, “Two Bits” has the impact of a sweet little short story or one-act play rather than a thoroughly fleshed-out drama. Joseph Stefano’s reminiscence of childhood on the streets of South Philadelphia in 1933 serves up some briefly poignant monologues and episodes, but the whole undertaking is just too slight to stand up as a viable theatrical B.O. entry. Miramax release, which was shot two years ago, had its world premiere Oct. 12 at the Chicago Film Festival.
Establishing its tone of warm remembrance of days gone by via old movie clips and narration from a middle-age perspective, pic serves up an initial jolt with its first view of Grandpa, played in low-key old-age makeup by Al Pacino. Grizzled and rumpled, sitting in an overgrown garden and dispensing advice in a rough, muted voice, the elderly Italian gent is a virtual dead ringer for Marlon Brando’s aged Don Corleone in the garden at the end of “The Godfather.” Of course, the other person in that scene with him was Pacino, nearly a quarter-century ago.
But Grandpa is no crime boss, just an old fellow who announces that this summer day will be his last. Although Grandpa is indisputably ailing, it’s hard to take him seriously. Of more pressing concern to his 12-year-old grandson Gennaro (Jerry Barone) is how he’s going to raise the 25 cents he needs to attend the opening day of the new local movie palace, La Paloma.
Grandpa tells Gennaro he’ll get the money when Grandpa dies. But that seems absurd to the boy, who takes to the streets in an attempt to earn the two bits any way he can.
These escapades comprise the bulk of the picture, as the kid tries a range gambits of varying legitimacy and precariousness.
Finally, however, Grandpa sends the boy on a mission that will give his life closure: To deliver a message to a woman he badly wronged years before and from whom he hopes to receive forgiveness. Gennaro still has La Paloma on his mind, but at the end of the day presumably has learned something that transcends the narrowness of his immediate desires.
Aside from the appealing final episode, the anecdotes recounted here are thoroughly unremarkable and have only the most marginal impact. The entire proceedings are bathed in such a rosy, nostalgic glow that the realities of the period may be seen, but are not at all felt. This is a mere wisp of a film compared with another recent Depression memory piece from a boy’s p.o.v., Steven Soderbergh’s excellent “King of the Hill.”
The best moments are purely theatrical in nature, notably the one-set scene in which Gennaro visits the woman from his grandfather’s distant past, and a beautifully delivered monologue by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio.
When the adults are not around, which is most of the time, pic perks minor interest at best because Gennaro’s single-minded pursuit of coin simply is not an arresting activity, and because of Barone’s indifferent thesping. Up against some of the great pre-teen performances of late, including Jesse Bradford’s in “King of the Hill,” non-pro Barone seems to be just delivering the lines, bringing nothing extra to them.
There’s nothing wrong with Pacino’s almost entirely sedentary, underplayed turn as the benign, philosophical old codger who’s ready to call it a life, but there is an element of show-boating about it and it’s the sort of performance that any number of talented character actors could have given.
A great deal of loving care clearly has gone into production designer Jane Musky’s re-creation of a long-vanished incarnation of South Philly, but it’s so prettified and idealized as to go over the top into a never-never land of reverie rather than reality, an impression furthered by Juan Ruiz-Anchia’s rosy-hued lensing.