Frank Pesce (Anthony LaPaglia) has had a lucky streak all his life. Growing up in Queens in the Italian neighborhood of 29th Street, Frank’s life has been filled with colorful characters and bizarre incidents. He and his close knit and loud Italian family are the center of his life.
His father Frank Sr. (Danny Aiello) is a hard worker, but never had the luck his son has had. His dreams have never fully happened and he’s been working and chasing fortunes that never come, while Frankie Jr. seems to have squandered his lucky streak and his life by having no ambition and remains directionless. This in turn has created a lot of friction between father and son.
So, how is it that Frank Jr. winning New York State’s first lottery drawing be such a terrible thing? Why is it that he feels so bad at winning $6.5 million, rather than celebrating he’s screaming at God on Christmas Eve at the neighborhood church for what he’s done to him? That’s the start of 29th Street.
The story of 29th Street was said was based on the true story of Frank Pesce, (who also co-stars in the film). Despite, how much it might’ve been promoted as ‘being based on a true story’, there was a lot of fictionalizing to Pesce’s real life tale that took place for the film, but I’ll get to that later.
I’ve heard 29th Street described as Goodfellas meets It’s a Wonderful Life. I believe film critic Jeffrey Lyons said that and that’s not too bad a description! This charming Christmas tale doesn’t take place in the quiet town of Bedford Falls, but in the loud Italian New York neighborhood of 29th Street.
The film hooks you right from the start. It’s Christmas Eve, 1976 and Pesce has arrived at Madison Square Garden as one of the select finalists in the drawing of the first New York State Lottery. There’s excitement and eager anticipation by everyone in the crowd – except by Frank. He sits alone smoking nervously awaiting host Joe Franklin (playing himself) to draw the final lottery number that will determine who will win the $6.2 million grand prize.
The number is drawn, it’s handed to Franklin, he walks to the microphone and announces the winner – which is Frank Pesce. Cut to Frank’s crestfallen face and the credits begin.
It’s such a great opening scene! You have to stick around to see why Frank is so upset that he goes to his neighborhood church, attacks the manger, throws snowballs at the priest and is cursing God for letting him be the winner of the lottery.
Now, sitting in the police station with Police Sergeant Robert Forester, the news is excitedly announcing the identity NY’s first lottery winner. This leaves the cops and the priest absolutely confused and Frank is forced to explain his strange behavior. He begins to recount his life story. Though flashbacks of his life with his family and friends, we learn Frank has always had this gift of luck. It was typically a good thing for him, yet tonight it has turned into a curse – resulting him in winning a fortune. What is the explanation of this???
29th Street is a crowd pleaser of a movie. It’s about an Italian American family and all the dramatic and humorous detours they all take together. It has good performances, quirky supporting characters, has a charming, fairy-tale quality about it and an uplifting ending that is meant to leave you smiling.
Through the flashback we go on a ‘It’s A Wonderful Life-type of journey through Frank’s life. We meet his father Frank Sr., his mother (Lainie Kazan), sister (Donna Magnani) and brother Vito (played by the real Frank Pesce).
From his upbringing on 29th Street in NYC, Frank is surrounded by a collection of wise guys, wannabe hoods and an offbeat group of friends who look like they were pulled out straight out of the bar in Goodfellas. They all have funny names and quirks like ‘Dom the Bomb’, ‘Needle Nose’ and ‘Philly the Nap’, a narcoleptic who often falls asleep mid sentence.
We see how Frank Jr.’s lucky streak has followed him all his life and been something of a guardian angel watching out for him. It keeps him out of the Vietnam War. A violent attack that nearly kills him, turns out to alert doctors to a hidden medical issue and ultimately saves his life. He can also shoot a mean game of craps.
While Frank’s ‘lucky streak’ has been a gift in his life, in some cases it becomes a comical curse of fate on him and the family. Loud family dinners, characters with NY tough attitude, roaring arguments, hard times, unsuccessful schemes and comical misadventures form the history of the Pesce family.
Through it all Frank remains directionless in his life, which continually irritates his hard-working father. Eventually we’re brought up to the point when the lottery ticket falls into Frank Jr.’s hands and how important winning it could mean to the Pesce family.
LaPaglia and Aiello are the real anchors in the film. They’re father and son who butt heads and squabble, but have a deep love for one another. While there is a lot of light comedy in the film, at times it shifts to very dramatic scenes between the two. They’re both very good, both very likable and make you believe this dysfunctional family dynamic of the Pesce family. They could be needling each other one minute, but have a heart to heart the next.
This was the first time I had seen Paglia in anything. I thought he was very good in this. He’s funny, charming, charismatic, sympathetic. His Frank Pesce Jr. is someone I enjoy spending time with. Since 29th Street LaPaglia went on to do a lot of other work, notably being the star on Without a Trace TV series. But no matter what I see him in ever since, I always immediately think of him from this role.
Aiello is equally good and watching it it doesn’t seem surprising why he treasured his performance in this film. He’s a simple working class father, who loves his wife and kids. While he has dreams of his own, he’s had to make sacrifices for his family. At times he’s almost like a ‘Ralph Kramden-type’ of character, who has ideas and schemes that never fully work out.
He and Kazan do some comical back and forth as husband and wife, but they also share some very tender moments together. It’s a very sweet performance from both of them.
Aiello is also very funny in 29th Street. He dials up his volume screaming and ranting at points, something that went along with a lot of his roles, but he also has some truly hysterical scenes. Like, his ongoing passion of owning his own lawn – despite it being only six feet. The enthusiasm he has looking over it and getting crazed when a cat sitting on it (“his body heat might burn a hole it!”) is one very funny highlight.
While I do like the film, there are some moments come off too forced and play rather clunky. At times, some of scenes and characters feel like they were lifted from sitcom television. It pushes too hard to be charming and endearing all the time, and doesn’t feel as genuine as other parts of the film. It starts to lay it on a little thick. There’s points when the story meanders aimlessly during the flashbacks of Frank’s life. But all that pass by relatively quickly and don’t deter from my overall enjoyment of the film.
By they way, you’ll spot a young Tony Sirico as one of the neighborhood wise guys. Sirico had also said he thought the film was adorable. Seems a lot of people hold an affection for 29th Street.
It’s mainly thanks to Aiello and LaPaglia that makes going through the chapters of the Pesce family so entertaining and makes the sentimental ending as satisfying as it is. A lot of Frank’s misadventures are very funny, there’s this air of innocent nostalgia the film is presented through and the father and son scenes are touching. It does a nice job of you really wanting you to see a happy ending for this family.
I got to see a sneak preview of 29th Street before it was released in cinemas in November 1991. I really enjoyed it and thought at the time audiences would too.
Unfortunately, it never found much attention when it was released. It slowly faded away and I rarely ever saw it shown anywhere. I always thought that was very disappointing and thought of it as this little known gem of a movie that was never really discovered.
Fast forward several decades, and I met someone who was good friends with Danny Aiello. They had been somewhat surprised when one of the first Aiello films I mentioned that I was fan of was 29th Street. I learned from her out of the dozens of films from his career he made, Aiello’s favorite film of his was 29th Street. The license plate on his car even read ’29th Street’. He was extremely proud of the film and his performance in it.
As for how ‘true to life’ 29th Street is, well there were definite liberties taken with the story by actor Frank Pesce. Most movie fans would probably recognize him from his role in Beverly Hills Cop.
The real Frank Pesce was indeed a finalist in the New York State Lottery and was offered money to sell his lottery ticket before the big drawing. He later said, “I held onto the ticket. I went to the drawing at Madison Square Garden and I won beans. I said to my father, ‘Are you happy now? I told you I should have sold that ticket’.
So Pesce, being a big fan of Frank Capra-type of movies decided to write a happy ending to his story. “I hate those kind of endings where people sit there say, ‘I know what’s going to happen. He’s going to lose the money.’ Do you think I would be making movies if I won all that money?”
With some added imagination and some Capra-esque touches, 29th Street became this Italian American family fairy tale and Pesce sold his story. Another piece of trivia, actor James Franciscus helped Pesce with the story.
Writer/director George Gallo helped with the screenplay and brought it to the screen with as much charm and sentimentality that would make Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey proud. It was Gallo’s first time directing. So in short, the story of 29th Street is not all completely true.
So, why isn’t 29th Street more better known? I’m not sure. Maybe the title didn’t help it. It’s rather generic and bland, and doesn’t really encapsulate the tone the film is. You see Aiello as the star of 29th Street, audiences might suspect it’s some kind of cheap mob movie and not really the heartwarming tale it really is.
Pesce later said, the release of the film did it no favors. 20th Century Fox spent most of its energy with the release of the Bette Midler film For the Boys. There was little promotion for 29th Street as it quietly released in small number of theaters.
Despite receiving a lot of positive reviews from critics, the film never gained any traction and quietly faded away. It’s been like that since its first release. Even to this day the film has never gotten a Blu-ray release. Limited run of the film on DVD can range in very high prices. Pesce himself had said how disappointed he felt with the studio. Pesce died in 2022.
29th Street is an underrated gem of a movie, just waiting to be discovered. Somehow it’s just slipping under the radar all these years. Most people I know who’ve seen it have really liked it. Reading comments on message boards from those who’ve seen it proclaim it not only one of their favorite Christmas movies, but movies in general! I’ve heard from people who grew up in similar neighborhoods, 29th Street is a blast of nostalgia of their own upbringing.
I certainly feel it’s a more entertaining film than some of the more usual ‘classic Christmas movies’ that get shown and watched on an annual basis. Heck, these characters would wipe the floor with any cast from a Hallmark movie!
I think 29th Street really deserves much more attention. It’s been like that since first seeing it and still feel pleased when I hear someone new discovers it.
Fortunately, you can find the entire film on YouTube at the moment. I recommend giving it a look. It might surprise you!