Two Bits

Wednesday November 22, 1995

     If we put our minds to it, most of us can isolate a moment from our childhood that stands out, above all others, for the lessons it taught us, for the changes it made in us and for its power to transport us back. The question raised by "Two Bits," screenwriter Joseph Stefano's autobiographical reflections on the formative moment in his life, is how much these personal epiphanies have to say to anyone else.
     The moment for Stefano, a child of the Depression, is Aug. 26, 1933, a day that begins with his alter ego, 12-year-old Gennaro (Jerry Barone), determined to earn a quarter for the movies and ends with his grandfather's death.
     In this slight but earnestly told tale, the two events are inextricably linked. Gennaro is compelled to do odd jobs for the money because his ailing grandfather (Al Pacino) insists on dying before Gennaro can claim his promised 25-cent inheritance. Even though his grandfather assures him that his death is imminent, Gennaro cannot wait because . . . well, because kids cannot wait.
     The effectiveness of this kind of personal reminiscence, which invites us to relive experiences refracted through decades of subsequent living, depends completely upon the amount of empathy generated by and for the storyteller himself. At that, Stefano and director James Foley ("Glengarry Glen Ross"), with Alec Baldwin providing the voice-over narration, only partially succeed.
     Barone, making his acting debut, has a natural presence, and it's easy enough to want to follow him along on a day that begins with his being unable to focus on anything other than his immediate goal--to be at the opening matinee of the new La Paloma movie palace--and ends with his having learned a good deal about values and the real world he is about to enter.
     The major problem with the film is that the nickel-and-dime adventures themselves don't pack enough drama to underscore the urgency Gennaro is feeling. There are some terrific scenes between the boy and his grandfather, who is determined to impart some of his wisdom before he's gone, and Pacino--though you cannot look at him without seeing the dying Michael Corleone in the last scene of "The Godfather, Part III"--brings enormous sympathy to a man sizing up his life on what he is certain is the day it will end.
     However, even at its brief running time of one hour and 25 minutes, "Two Bits" shows some stretch marks. We may end up with an appreciation for what the experience meant to its author and, for those of us born before TV and "The Brady Bunch," even join him for a swim in movie nostalgia. We certainly can't deny the importance of Gennaro getting into the La Paloma at the earliest possible moment.
     But unlike Steven Soderbergh's "King of the Hill," a superb adaptation of author A. E. Hotchner's memoirs about growing up in Depression-era St. Louis, "Two Bits" has little to say about its period or its setting. It remains strictly a slice of life, and as important as that slice is to Stefano, it's not quite enough for a fully realized movie.

Two Bits, 1995. PG-13, for mature themes. An Arthur Cohn production of a Connexion Film, released by Miramax Films. Director James Foley. Producer Arthur Cohn. Screenplay by Joseph Stefano. Cinematographer Juan Ruiz-Anchia. Editor Howard Smith. Costumes Claudia Brown. Music and production design Jane Musky. Art direction Tom Warren. Set decoration Robert J. Franco. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes. Jerry Barone as Gennaro. Al Pacino as Grandpa. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as Mom. Joe Grifasi as Uncle Joe.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times