The lurid, joshing street style; the mob; the operatic dinner-table squabbles; the Catholicism; the Bronx and Brooklyn; the sleek, dark-haired machismo — even if you’d never met an Italian-American, it would be easy to think you understood every nuance of their lives just from going to the movies. Many Italian-Americans doubtlessly reject these images as thin, stereotypical, even racist. They probably have a point. Yet it would be naive to deny that after Saturday Night Fever and Rocky, Scorsese films and Coppola films, not to mention countless anonymous cop thrillers and domestic dramas, a vibrantly theatrical view of Italian-American life has become part of the bedrock of our pop-cultural landscape.
The modest family comedy 29th Street unfolds in New York City during the mid-’70s. But it’s really set in Italian-American Movie Land, that place where everyone is named Tony, Vito, and Frank, and where domestic life is knit so tightly that people keep slapping each other between hugs. The hero, Frank Pesce Jr. (Anthony LaPaglia), is a handsome layabout who can’t hold a job. Frank, we’re told, has been blessed with good luck since birth. When he becomes a finalist in the New York State lottery, his impending fortune — it’s revealed in the opening scene that he wins — becomes a catalyst for unearthing his family’s intertwined roots of love and resentment.
LaPaglia, with his puppyish, melancholy smirk, is an intensely likable actor, and Danny Aiello plays the affectionate-but-domineering paterfamilias with his usual rough-edged authority. Scene for scene, the movie isn’t bad, yet the scenes don’t quite add up. All that’s really sustaining 29th Street is its broad, ”colorful” vision of Italian-American life, a vision that is by now so familiar, so derivative of other movies, that it’s hard to say whether you’re watching an honest slice of experience or a sheer fairy tale. B-