The whole fam damily
Raymond De Felitta’s City Island, after quite a bit of flailing about, winds up almost as charming as it tries to be all the way through. It presumes on our good will for the actors involved, and takes turns that are forced and contrived where they’re meant to be eccentric and amusing. In the end, however, we’re almost surprised to find that De Felitta has won us over. Whatever the missteps along the way, the movie has a good heart, and that’s what we respond to.
Andy Garcia plays Vince Rizzo, a guard at one of New York City’s jails. Vince lives with his family on City Island, a quaint little fishing community in Long Island Sound, just east of the Bronx. City Island has a New England atmosphere, studded by picturesque homes that have been in their families for generations. Among these are Vince and his family: his wife Joyce (Julianna Margulies); daughter Vivian, home from college on spring break (Dominik García-Lorido, Andy Garcia’s real-life daughter); and teenage son Vinnie (Ezra Miller).
The Rizzos are the kind of family whose affection for each other is effectively concealed under a cloak of sarcasting dinner-table yelling. But affection isn’t the only thing the Rizzos conceal. All of them have secrets: Vivian isn’t on spring break; she’s been suspended from school and is working as a pole dancer. Vinnie has a fetish for watching overweight women eat; Joyce still sneaks her cigarettes when nobody’s looking.
Vince’s secret is double-barreled. For one thing, those supposed poker games he runs off to several nights a week are really acting classes; Vince has a Marlon Brando fixation and a hankering to be an actor. And if that secret is as trivial as the ones harbored by the other members of the family, Vince’s other secret is a whopper: One of the new inmates at the jail where Vince works is his biological son, the product of a brief affair years earlier.
That child is now 24-year-old Tony (Steven Strait), mad at the world—including the father he never knew—a sullen, antisocial car thief who looks to be headed down the ladder of life. Without anybody knowing why, Vince has Tony released into his custody and brings him home, supposedly to do some fixer-upper work on the half-finished boathouse Vince has down by the water.
Actually, it’s not true that nobody knows why Vince brings Tony home. One person knows—Molly (Emily Mortimer), his newly assigned acting-class partner. Their teacher (a sardonic deadpan cameo by Alan Arkin) has assigned the students to share their “biggest secret,” with their partners, and Vince tells Molly about Tony. In return for the confidence, Molly makes it a project to reinforce Vince’s morale, encouraging him to attend a cattle-call audition for a Martin Scorsese movie.
Meanwhile, back at home, Joyce, angry that Tony has been brought into the household without consulting her, takes a cynical view of Vince’s “poker games” every night in the city. She doesn’t buy it; she knows Vince is having an affair. And with revenge on her mind, she takes an appraising look at this dangerous young hunk who’s been thrust under her nose. Wouldn’t that serve Vince right?
Add to these plot threads Vivian’s furtive work at the stripper bar and young Vinnie’s credulity-straining obsession with feeding plus-size women, and we know these family secrets are cruising for a collision, but we don’t know how it’s going to happen. Is somebody going to kill somebody or what?
Up to this point, De Felitta hasn’t been particularly adroit in juggling all these elements, so as we see the crisis approaching, it’s not at all clear that things aren’t going to slop over into melodrama. When it doesn’t, our relief is profound enough, combined with the likability of the performances, that we’re willing to overlook the uneasy feeling we get from De Felitta’s uncertain tone in much of what’s gone before.
City Island calls itself a “dramedy”—meaning it’s a comedy that isn’t particularly funny. We hear the jokes thud and lie there inert (though one that doesn’t is Vince’s hilarious attempt to channel Brando during his audition)—but even as they do, we’re willing to overlook them. We sense that this is, somehow, a nice movie, and we want to meet it more than halfway.