“City Island” is short and sweet, and it constitutes an enjoyable independent look at a believable New York family. Written and directed by NYC native Raymond De Felitta, the film follows the Rizzos, a family residing in City Island – a small subsection of the Bronx with the feel of a New England fishing village.
At the State
Led by patriarch and correctional officer Vincent (Andy Garcia, “Ocean’s Thirteen”), the family has plenty of secrets to go around. Vincent is secretly a Marlon Brando-obsessed wannabe actor. Wife Joyce (Julianna Margulies, TV’s “The Good Wife”) hides her smoking from her husband, ignorant to the fact that he does the same to her. Daughter Vivian (Dominik García-Lorido, “The Lost City”), the family’s first prospective college graduate, turns to stripping to pay for school. Meanwhile, son Vince Jr. (Ezra Miller, TV’s “Royal Pains”) has a fetish for feeding things to women and spends his time searching for plus-size porn on the Internet.
In comes Tony Nardella (Steven Strait, “10,000 BC”), a soon-to-be ex-prison inmate who Vincent believes to be his illegitimate son. Vincent takes him in, hoping he might hold the key to bringing his family together. At the same time, though, Vincent neglects to inform his family about Tony’s true identity. Tony starts unwittingly uncovering each family member’s not-very-well kept secret, finding himself as the ironic patron of truth as he tries to help them.
The film suffers from unnecessary pitfalls of independent filmmaking, like a bland title sequence and unmemorable music choices – both of which make it slow to start – but succeeds beyond most movies of its ilk through its humorous portrayal of realistic characters and situations, which still manage to entertain. As most $6-million movies do, “City Island” focuses on character development and takes archetypical personalities out of their emotional wheelhouses. For example, Vincent’s anxiety as he walks before an audition camera contrasts with his tough New Yorker exterior, and Tony’s openness towards the family contrasts with his history of car theft.
The casting is brilliant, specifically that of Garcia and Margulies, whose recognizable faces make for an interesting study when they take on uncommon traits. Strait is a straight-faced gem, calmly reacting to the ridiculous situation his character encounters with a sense of appreciation for the family’s generosity. Additionally, Emily Mortimer (“Lars and the Real Girl”) puts in a charmingly British performance as Molly, Vincent’s acting class partner and catalyst for his character arc.
The strong acting doesn’t discount some excellent behind-the-scenes work, including a hilarious script from De Felitta and tight editing by David Leonard.
Narratively, the main plot is well fleshed-out, but the subplots are somewhat messy and go in a few directions without much resolution. Vince Jr.’s obsession with overweight women is curious and lends the character a layer of mystery, but never sprouts into much more than a quirk for comedic relief. Also, the tension that the elder Vincent sets up in the very first lines of the film – that between “clam diggers,” or those native to City Island, and “mussel suckers,” those who have come from elsewhere – is never fully explored.
These faults make the film feel somewhat incomplete, but it nevertheless leaves a lasting impression. Independent films, even those with big-name actors, have a tough time being appealing on a mass-cultural level, but “City Island” has the elements of a potential underground hit that dysfunctional families everywhere can enjoy – or at least understand.