Where the East River meets Long Island Sound lies the mile-square former fishing enclave in which writer/director Raymond De Fellita sets his movie about an Italian-American clan. Warm, broad and uneven, City Island almost thrives in the lite entertainment zone where ethnic family dramedy meets mildly raucous farce. Focusing on the solid performances and less predictable plot details is the best way to keep cynicism at bay. With Andy Garcia starring and producing the piece could develop some relative momentum as it rolls out, yet there’s little chance it’ll go gangbusters in Peoria or Little Italy.
Having premiered appropriately at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival, City Island doesn’t take full advantage of the Bronx’s hidden gem, a community peppered with neat middle-class homes, seafood eateries and businesses catering to boaters and oystermen. Truth be told, City Island is frequently a location for film and TV shoots, but usually it’s standing-in for other places in the Tri-state area and New England.
Garcia narrates as patriarch Vince Rizzo, a corrections officer who dreams of being an actor. He makes lame excuses for the time he spends taking acting class in Manhattan, and his wife Joyce (Julianna Margulies) suspects he has a goomah on the side. Their daughter Vivian (Garcia’s real-life daughter Dominik García-Lorido) is harboring a pretty big secret of her own. Instead of attending college as everyone thinks, she’s working as a pole dancer in a New Jersey strip club, having been kicked out of school. Meanwhile, their teenaged son, Vinnie Jr. (Ezra Miller), uses the Internet to nurse his yen for plus-size women.
Then elder Vinnie’s second secret, which dwarfs all the other concealments, figures into the proceedings one day when he brings home Tony (Steven Strait of 10,000 B.C. infamy), a hunky ex-con with no next of kin (hint, hint) and nowhere else to go. In exchange for doing some plumbing, he lets Tony live in the boat shack adjacent to the house—which, by the way, was built by Vince’s grandfather. Joyce is immediately attracted to the oft-shirtless parolee and doesn’t see why she shouldn’t act on her feelings since she’s fairly certain Vince is cheating. In the other major plot strand, the opportunity for Vince to actually stray presents itself in the form of his acting-class scene partner, a Holly Golightly figure portrayed by Emily Mortimer (at first blush, a fish far from her native waters).
Vince and Joyce bicker incessantly and entertainingly, slinging insults with convincing gusto (Margulies is especially feisty) if not always with convincing accents. Of course they love each other deeply and of course everyone’s secrets are revealed and resolved in one big improbable, enjoyably messy climactic scene. Thankfully, De Felitta doesn’t press on the Italian stereotypes too hard. On the other hand, City Island can be accused of lacking ethnic authenticity (after all, Garcia is once again a Latin playing an Italian) and of not being a quintessentially New York story. The overall blandness is offset somewhat by the younger Vince’s fetish; and yet, by refraining from turning large women into objects of ridicule or veering into the gross or rudely sexual, De Felitta leaves some laughs on the table.
Young Ezra Miller delivers a breakout performance as the quirky and quick-witted adolescent whose bona fides as a sexual pervert are tastefully and indeed joyfully not established. Miller ought to find steady work based on this turn. The other standout is Alan Arkin, who, in the small role of Vince’s acting teacher, delivers a terrific speech in which he amusingly decries the propensity for amateur actors to indulge in long pauses. It contains excellent advice for aspiring (and accomplished) thespians.
For their part, budding commercial filmmakers could do a lot worse than follow De Fellitta’s model of making modestly ambitious movies by tweaking familiar situations and themes with the aid of good actors and solid behind-the-scenes crew. City Island is considerably better than his leaden 2005 exploration of father-son dynamics The Thing About My Folks, which starred Paul Reiser and Peter Falk. It has more in common with his award-winning 2000 indie Two Family House, which was set on Staten Island.
Distributor: Overture Films
Cast: Andy Garcia, Julianna Margulies, Steven Strait, Emily Mortimer, Ezra Miller, Dominik García-Lorido and Alan Arkin
Director/Screenwriter: Raymond De Felitta
Producers: Raymond De Felitta, Andy Garcia, Zachary Matz and Lauren Versel
Rating: PG-13 for sexual content, smoking and language.
Running time: 103 min.
Release date: March 19 ltd.