Friday, April 30, 2010

City Island: Family Affair

City Island (2010) • View trailer for City Island
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for profanity and sexual content
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.30.10
Buy DVD: City Island • Buy Blu-Ray: City Island [Blu-ray]

This is what going to the movies is all about.

High-profile pictures like Alice in Wonderland and Iron Man 2 come freighted with their own baggage; the talents involved behind and in front of the camera always set up certain expectations. And because of theatrical previews and TV spots that reveal far too much ahead of time, we invariably have a pretty strong sense of the film before the lights even go down.
Vince (Andy Garcia, center rear) always hopes to have a nice, quiet family
meal ... but tempers invariably fly in the Rizzo household, and it seems that
everybody has a secret to hide.

No possible sense of discovery there.

Ah, but the smaller films that arrive on little-cat feet, absent the megabucks marketing campaigns ... they always offer the anticipation of the unknown, the hope of joyous surprise.

City Island is just such a film. And it delivers on such hopes.

Writer/director Raymond De Felitta's thoroughly delightful comedy-drama deserves to become the sort of sleeper hit that turned My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Little Miss Sunshine into box-office sensations. De Felitta's film is funny, touching, achingly poignant and perfectly acted by an ensemble company that puts the "dys" in this dysfunctional family.

We all know people like the Rizzos, in their noisy, combative and exasperated fury. God forbid any of us ever have the misfortune to live next door to a family like this, but in the event we do, one thing's certain: Life won't ever be dull.

Andy Garcia stars as "correctional officer" Vince Rizzo  never, ever call him a "prison guard"  who is introduced as he sneaks a cigarette in the master bathroom while studying up on Marlon Brando. Vince dreams of becoming an actor, and to that end has been clandestinely attending an evening acting class while claiming to be playing poker with friends.

(Alan Arkin pops up as the class' acting coach. I'm beginning to suspect that Arkin is under contract to appear in every misfit indie film.)

Thanks to these frequent absences, Vince's wife, Joyce (Julianna Margulies), is convinced that he's having an affair ... not that she'd dream of confronting him about such suspicions. She's far more content to simmer like the high-carb pasta dinners she puts on the table each evening, while sneaking cigarettes when she believes nobody is paying attention.

Yes, it's true: Vince's embarrassment over his thespic aspirations runs so deep that he'd rather let his fiery wife believe that his weekly poker games are a cover for an extramarital affair, than admit he's secretly taking acting classes in Manhattan.

Teenage son Vince Jr. (Ezra Miller), clearly enjoying the tension generated by mealtime squabbles, has a talent for inserting sarcastic remarks that prompt fresh arguments. And when he's not sneaking cigarettes on the roof outside his bedroom window, he's trolling the Internet and indulging his, ah, somewhat unusual fetish.

Things come to a full boil in the Rizzo household as a result of three converging events. Vince and Joyce, expecting to have college-age daughter Vivian (Dominik Garcia-Lorido, Andy Garcia's real-life daughter) join them during spring break, arrange to collect her at the bus terminal. Vivian, alas, hasn't told her folks that she lost her scholarship and got kicked out of school, and has been earning her keep as a stripper in a dive bar.

Oh, and did I mention? She sneaks a cigarette whenever she thinks her parents  and snoopy younger brother  aren't watching.

This running gag is hilarious, because the only reason nobody notices everybody else's nicotine transgressions is that each person already smells of smoke.

Meanwhile, during his working hours, Vince recognizes a recently transferred prisoner as Tony Nardella (Steven Strait), the boy he fathered many, many years ago  before he met Joyce  and then abandoned. Wanting to do right by this now twentysomething young man, Vince arranges to have Tony released in his custody, in order to live with his family.

Without clearing this scheme with Joyce.

Also without mentioning the father/son relationship to Tony.

And, finally, Vince's stumbling efforts at acting class come to the attention of sympathetic classmate Molly (Emily Mortimer), who impulsively insists that he should show up for an open casting call for some movie about to go into production. Which utterly terrifies the already emotionally overloaded Vince.

Things get even crazier once Tony becomes part of the Rizzo household, starting with his eye-opening exposure to a typical family dinner experience. It's hard to know what's funnier: the increasingly combustible, snarky dialogue flowing between the Rizzos, or poor Tony's quiet, slow-take responses to same.

Because Tony subsequently spends much of his time shirtless, his enticingly buff body exposed to the world  Vince has proposed that the young man work for his keep, by installing a bathroom in a back yard outbuilding  Joyce's mind starts running in carnal directions. And why not? If her husband's having an affair, what's to stop her?

All this rising absurdity remains palatable because, at the core, each of these characters is basically decent. The quirks, tics and hair-trigger temper tantrums are surface mannerisms that have developed into a pattern of behavior; it's how the Rizzos have grown to interact with each other.

As the outsider newly introduced to this chaos, Tony thus becomes our surrogate; his reactions mirror our own, were we similarly dumped into the middle of such domestic disharmony. The irony is choice: Despite being a felon, Tony is the most honest character in this misfit dynamic.

Garcia and Margulies are a natural as the eternally embattled Vince and Joyce; they have the easy familiarity of a couple married for many, many years, and settled into uncomfortable patterns they've no idea how to break.

Despite his bluster, Garcia's Vince has a sensitive side: one he exposes only to Molly. And despite Margulies' frequently volcanic fury and brittle body language, Joyce clearly has a passionate core that makes her teenager-giddy when in Tony's presence. Margulies is a hoot, as she battles these urges.

Garcia-Lorido's Vivian, despite having inherited her mother's short fuse, also has her father's kinder instincts; she often tries to play peacemaker, and is the only family member able to talk Vince down from one of his apoplectic rages. And while Miller's Vince Jr. initially seems little more than a typical teenage pain in the rear, the boy has his own gentler side ... although it emerges under rather unusual circumstances.

Mortimer's far calmer, oh-so-veddy-British mannerisms stand in stark contrast to the rest of these characters, and Molly's shrewdly perceptive observations frequently surprise Vince ... who, to his credit, doesn't dismiss them. For all her outward self-assurance, though, Molly appears oddly vulnerable, and the flirtatious tension between Mortimer and Garcia builds to breathtaking intensity.

The remaining, equally important character in this dynamic is the City Island setting itself: a quaint fishing village at the northern tip of the Bronx, reached via ferry from the mainland and having become, following World War II, an enclave of steadfast locals who were born and raised there ("clam diggers"), who tolerate the transplants from elsewhere ("mussel-suckers") and day-trippers who patronize the community's thriving seafood restaurants. The little island is charming beyond words, and seemingly worlds removed from the nearby hustle and bustle of Manhattan.

Garcia clearly believed in this film, and has a producer's credit in addition to his starring role. His interest is easy to understand; De Felitta has concocted a delicious acting showcase for his ensemble cast, and the performers have responded with their best work.

Catch this one before media overkill blows its modest charms wholly out of proportion.

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