This family dramedy starring a gruff-but-lovable Andy Garcia has just enough safely passionate idiosyncrasies to hit the sweet-and-sassy spot. An indie film with a sitcom heart about a family full of quirky secrets, City Island may not surprise, but it’ll certainly put up a smile.
I make no bones about the kinds of film making that twirl my jump rope: I like daring, edgy, sometimes cynical or satirical stuff; I like new, innovative, and often subversive ideas; and I usually cringe at cliché. But that said, I’m also a kind of a deep-down sap, and I always respond to a good old-fashioned tale told well.
City Island does have a bit of a “new-fashioned” edge—there are subplots about stripping and food-feeding fetishes. But it’s no quirky, deadpan or depressing indie flick–for the most part this is a good, old-fashioned tale told well, about a family that’s amusingly and engagingly dysfunctional, but not so much so they can’t come back together for a family love-conquers-all hug at the end.
Andy Garcia and Julianna Margulies head up an Italian-American family that even in its passionate conflicts feels “movie-normal” or “sitcom-normal” (as opposed to “painfully realistic-normal”). Garcia is Vince Rizzo, a corrections officer (not a “prison guard,” he’s quick to point out) who comes face to face at work with the secret adult son he skipped out on decades ago. That’s not Vince’s only secret—his other is even more “odd” by middle-class blue-collar standards: he wants to be an actor.
Vince brings his lost son home with him, and soon we’re finding that everyone in the immediate family has a few secrets of their own. City Island, as written and directed by Raymond De Felitta, then takes nice, big, safe swings at those mostly harmless hidden lives. The Rizzos are a loud, hot-blooded Bronx clan that embraces schmaltz and angst with equal measures of passion, but City Island doesn’t let things get too dark or disturbing. There’s always a safety net in place letting you know that, as in say an episode of Everyone Loves Raymond or Roseanne, everything will work out in the end.
That makes City Island a wacky but warm bit of Arthur Miller lite. Still, given how thick it lays on the soft-indie clichés, the movie might wear thin if it wasn’t for the solid cast. In a long career full of cop and criminal roles, Andy Garcia’s rarely gotten a chance to play a regular family man, and he wears it well. Maybe the actor comes off a little too suave and confident for someone as gruff and vulnerable as Frank, but there’s no denying how likable Garcia is here and how easily and gracefully he anchors the film.
Margulies also does a fine job, though unfortunately her wife character is the least realized and least interesting in the film. Garcia’s own daughter Dominik García-Lorido plays his daughter in City Island, and newcomer Ezra Miller is amusing as the smart-aleck son–I look forward to seeing him in some larger roles, comedic or dramatic. And while such relatively old pros as Emily Mortimer and Alan Arkin fill out the cast with plenty of indie acting cred, City Island should prove a breakthrough for Steven Strait. Dropped into the Rizzos’ home, the young model-turned-actor plays Frank’s newfound older son with a fine mix of bewilderment and easy going wisdom. (That is, he knows when to keep his mouth shut.)
City Island is predictable–even in its “chaotic confusion” moments, but that ends up being part of its strength as well. Despite the quirks, it works as a sturdy dramedy because it never loses sight of its simple family themes. Add in plenty of good-natured humor served up by a talented cast and you have pleasant, filling—and most of all, entertaining—cinematic