By People Staff
November 18, 1991 12:00 PM

Danny Aiello, Anthony LaPaglia

All you need is a dollar and a dream—and the lifelong curse of good luck. That’s what it takes for Frank Pesce (LaPaglia), just 28, to win $6.2 million in the first New York lottery on Christmas Eve, 1976. So what does he do? He throws snowballs at his parish church and curses the heavens for his good fortune. Why? Well, he says as he settles in to tell the priest and the cops who’ve hauled him into the station, it all started when…

So begins the cheerful, picaresque tale of Frank as he grows up on 29th Street in New York City with his very Italian family, which includes Aiello as Frank Sr., Lainie Kazan as his mother and the real Frank Pesce as his own brother, Vito. (As if this isn’t family enough, Aiello’s son Rick plays Jimmy Vitello, Frank’s slick boyhood pal whose pop is Connected.) Pesce developed the story himself along with the late actor James Franciscus (no, Pesce didn’t actually win $6.2 million), then turned it over to writer-director George Gallo, who fashioned the father-and-son tale into It’s a Wonderful Life, Italian-American style.

Gallo pays fun-loving tribute to Frank Capra and to Pesce’s story. LaPaglia (Betsy’s Wedding) is a delight, at once streetwise but baffled by his run of good luck (e.g., he gets out of Vietnam because he’s so ingenuous the recruiting sergeant thinks he’s crazy as a bedbug). Pesce, himself no amateur (Midnight Run, Top Gun), plays off LaPaglia nicely as his captious cop brother, while Kazan, who did the same shtick, Jewish version, in My Favorite Year, now locks up the role of Mediterranean Earth Mother. But as usual these days, it’s Aiello (Moonstruck, Jacob’s Ladder) who makes the camera love his ground-meat face and every florid gesture. If you can’t get a kick out of him and his fractious family in this good-natured holiday romp, you must be a wise guy or something. (R)