One often goes to American indie comedies with a sense of dread, a feeling that frequently proves justified (see the recent “Happy Tears”—or, more properly, don’t). But occasionally one gets a delightful surprise. “Little Miss Sunshine” was one. “City Island” is another.
This is yet another comedy about a dysfunctional family, but like “Sunshine” (and unlike “Tears”), it’s charming and funny. Writer-director Raymond de Felitta spins a delightfully complicated tale about the Rizzos, who live in the isolated New York harbor town of the title. Each member of the clan has secrets. Vince (Andy Garcia), an alternately gruff and pensive prison guard, pretends to be going to poker parties when he’s actually fulfilling a lifelong dream by taking acting classes with a sharp-tongued teacher who’s obviously bitter over his own failure to achieve success (another brilliantly curmudgeonly turn by Alan Arkin) and who despises the “method” acting embodied in Vince’s hero Brando. Vince also pretends to have quit smoking—a pretense he shares with his voluble wife Joyce (Julianna Margulies), who suspects those poker games are just cover for an affair.
Meanwhile their daughter Vivian (Dominik Garcio-Lorido) has become a stripper to raise the money to resume the college education her parents still think she’s pursuing. And wiseacre teen son Vinnie (Ezra Miller) is hiding his interest in overweight girls—a proclivity that leads him, after failing in his clumsy efforts to approach a chubby classmate—to surf the web in search of satisfaction, a practice that eventually leads him to the kitchen of a neighbor who’s a literally large Internet presence.
But Vince is thrown for a real loop—and stuck with the biggest secret of all—when he encounters a new inmate, Tony Nardella (Steven Strait), who he calculates is the son by a long-ago girlfriend whom he abandoned when she got pregnant. So he arranges to have the hunky guy, at most a minor thief, released into his custody and brings him home, ostensibly to help him install some new plumbing. Naturally his wife and son are incredulous, and they’re joined by Garcio-Lorido, who keeps up her college charade by pretending she’s on spring break, while occasionally sneaking back to work.
That’s still not all. At the urging of one of his fellow students, the apparently sophisticated and knowledgeable Molly (Emily Mortimer), Vince goes on his first audition, for Martin Scorsese’s new movie no less. And wonder of wonders, he gets a callback. How he handles it—or more precisely how Garcia handles it—is simply hilarious, and a career highlight for the actor. But naturally in the process Joyce is convinced that Molly is more than his agent. And in her anger and disgust she’s momentarily attracted to Tony. He, in turn, learns of Vivian’s deception.
Everybody is wearing a mask of some sort in “City Island”—even Molly, as it turns out. And it’s obligatory that in the end they all must come off. The issue isn’t whether that will happen but how, and Felitta pulls it off in a scene of farcical complication that might be contrived but is so well played as to end the picture on a high note. Like a stage curtain call, it allows each member of the extended family to shine.
And shine they do. Garcia anchors things with a turn as good as anything he’s ever done, and he’s matched—especially in the inevitable squabbling scenes—by Margulies, who makes a formidable foe. Garcio-Lorido is fine, and young Miller (a semi-regular on “Royal Pains”) turns what could have been an embarrassing role into funny and affecting one. Strait is handsome, but more important convincing as the bewildered Tony, and though Mortimer is necessarily a bit opaque as a character who plays things close to the vest, she pulls off a difficult final scene with aplomb.
“City Island” isn’t any great shakes in the technical department, but the work of production designer Franckie Diago and costumer Tere Duncan captures the atmosphere of the place without exaggeration, and Vanja Cernjul’s cinematography gives everything an authentically lived-in look.
It’s always a wonderful experience to encounter a picture like this—obviously a labor of love that turns out to be worth every ounce of affection the cast and crew lavished on it. It’s a cheering sign for the continued vibrancy of American independent movies—some of them, at least.