Secret island

Oddball comedy-drama sparked by multiple family secrets

What lies beneath?

What lies beneath?

City Island
Starring Andy Garcia and Julianna Margulies. Directed by Raymond De Felitta. Paradise Cinema 7 (and coming soon to Pageant Theatre). Rated PG-13.
Rated 4.0

Vince (Andy Garcia) can’t tell his wife, Joyce (Julianna Margulies), what he’s really doing when he goes out for his “poker night.” Their daughter Vivian (Dominik García-Lorido) is supposed to be studying hard at college, but actually she’s working as a pole-dancer to cover for the scholarship money she’s lost. And wise-ass little brother Vinnie (Ezra Miller) has been downloading fat-girl pornography and is now itching to make contact with the real thing.

It’s easy enough to make City Island sound more lurid than it really is, but this good-natured comedy-drama eagerly and deliberately courts that mistaken impression—partly out of free-spirited daring, and partly out of ribald, free-wheeling respect for Vince and his family and friends. Everybody in this guy’s seemingly dysfunctional family has a couple of secrets to hide, some of them deeper and darker than others, and all of that slides very nicely into a charmingly offbeat comedy of false impressions and mistaken identities.

Vince is a prison guard who harbors dreams of becoming an actor, or maybe even the next Marlon Brando. The acting classes he’s attending on the sly lead him into the company of (and a mostly Platonic friendship with) Brit-accented Molly (Emily Mortimer), who has a couple of pretty dramatic secrets of her own to confront. But the most potent secret of all is literally at Vince’s doorstep—Tony (Steven Strait), the parolee he has brought home with him on a halfway-house basis, is actually his son from an abandoned youthful relationship.

If the revelation of such secrets was all that City Island had to offer, then it might well be just so much wretched excess, regardless of whether it was melodrama or farce (and I would be guilty of multiple spoilers). But writer-director Raymond De Felitta makes the characters’ playing out of these various revelations—to each other—into a converging set of relationship dramas that are for the most part very funny and very moving, all at the same time.

De Felitta and company flirt at length with all-out tragicomedy, a little like a situation comedy on cable TV threatening to run amok, but they finish with a gently stylized denouement that plays rather like a street-theater version of comic opera. Those oddball mixtures are the means by which the movie takes these quasi-stereotypical characters and stirs them up into something a little more gritty and earnest.

Garcia and Margulies deliver the goods, the passion and the grit alike—with an amiable brusqueness, navigating the story’s precarious sentiments with conviction and aplomb. Mortimer’s wistfully conflicted Molly serves as a very poignant foil to both of the lead characters. Miller and García-Lorido are piquant in an edgy sit-com fashion. Hunky Tony emerges more as a fantasy object than as an actual character, but Strait still manages to convey an agreeable mixture of dignity and dismay.