City Island

City Island is a good movie that could have been great if it didn’t spend so much time getting in its own way.

A cousin to Moonstruck, the film follows a quirky Italian-American family living on City Island, an old-fashioned fishing village nestled in the Bronx. That setting is one of the most interesting aspects of the movie… it’s strange and wonderful to see a cluster of fishing boats against a backdrop of the Manhattan skyline. I had no idea such a place existed.

Andy Garcia plays paterfamilias Vince Rizzo, a corrections officer who prefers not to be called a prison guard. His wife Joyce is played by the wonderful Julianna Margulies, a long way from ER and The Good Wife. Their teenage children are portrayed by Dominik GarcĂ­a-Lorido (Garcia’s real-life daughter) and Ezra Miller.

The casting is spot-on — you believe this group of largely unhappy people have lived with each other for years… the Rizzos’ hostile dinner table conversation rings uncomfortably true. Garcia is award-worthy in the best role he’s had in years. He captures Vince’s blue-collar rhythms and slowly reveals hidden layers of sorrow and regret.

The film’s central premise is that each of the family members is hiding a major secret from the rest and that it’s their dishonesty that’s hurting them more than the actual secrets. Vince heads off to a weekly “poker game” that Joyce assumes is a mask for a love affair but is actually the cover he uses to attend an acting class (Alan Arkin has a great cameo as the teacher). The daughter, Vivian, has lost her college scholarship and is stripping to raise money. Vince Jr. is looking to satisfy his fetish for feeding obese women. And Joyce’s secret (apart from a smoking habit she is supposed to have kicked) is her growing disillusionment with her marriage.

Thrown into the mix are a couple of characters who serve as catalysts for the film’s plot. Tony Nardella (Steven Strait) is a convict who Vince takes into his custody for personal reasons I won’t reveal here and Molly (Emily Mortimer) is a fellow acting student who helps Vince step more fully into the creative world.

That’s a lot of balls to keep in the air, and writer-director Raymond de Felitta falters a bit as the film carries on. I was surprised to see that de Felitta has been making movies for nearly 20 years, because the City Island screenplay suffers from what I think of as beginner’s mistakes. In trying to tie everything together so neatly and extend his theme to every major character he overshoots the mark.

Take Vince Jr.’s feeding fetish. It’s certainly a new concept (to me, anyway) but it doesn’t go anywhere. I get the sense it was added as both an ill-conceived stab at comic relief and because de Felitta needed all of the Rizzos to harbor a secret. I found Vince Jr. far more effective as a sarcastic pain in the ass providing dry commentary on the family dynamic. Fleshing out (quite literally) his storyline diminishes the film.

The bigger problem is with Emily Mortimer’s character. Mortimer is a fine actress but her Molly never rings true. A late revelation, which should cast some light on her behavior throughout the film, falls flat. I appreciate the need for a character to spur on Vince’s acting career, but I wonder if Tony couldn’t have filled that void with a bit of rewriting.

But enough with the criticism. I’m tough on the film’s missteps only because it does so many other things right. A sequence in the middle of the film where Vince goes on an audition is a brilliant set piece that really lets Garcia shine… he has to play a bad actor discovering that being a good liar can make him a good actor.

And those family dinner scenes are sublime suites of comic hostility. During those moments, the Moonstruck comparisons make sense.

The film to which I more readily compare City Island is Little Miss Sunshine, another saga about a dysfunctional family (also featuring Alan Arkin) that hits so many high notes but falls short of greatness after tripping on its own ambitions.

But as film flaws go, a surplus of ambition is among the most forgivable.

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2 thoughts on “City Island

  1. pegclifton says:

    Great review, I agree with just about everything you said. Dad felt (and I agreed) that it took a little too long to get to the climax at the end, but that said, we loved it and thought it was the best thing Andy Garcia’s done in a long time!

  2. Amy says:

    I, too, agree with every word you say. The son’s subplot was by far the strangest and most unnecessary part of the movie, though Mortimer’s secret was the more disturbing one to reveal and then drop.

    That said, the dinner scenes alone were worth the price of admission, and I loved the family dynamic that rang so true.

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