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November 15, 2017

City Island

by Franz Patrick


City Island (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★

Vince (Andy Garcia), a corrections officer, gets the surprise of his life when he recognizes the last name of one of the new transfers. Tony (Steven Strait) is the son he had abandoned twenty-four years ago and had since started his own family in City Island, an old fishing village in the Bronx. Although Tony is eligible for temporary release, he has no family member to claim him. So, Vince decides to take responsibility for Tony and welcomes the unsuspecting young man into his home.

Given that the recurring theme in “City Island,” written and directed by Raymond De Felitta, is secrets, big and small, it is only a matter of time until all the dirty laundry is exposed. It is an amazing feat, however, that even though we know what to expect in the third act, the material remains fresh and exciting for two reasons: there are enough small twists in the screenplay to keep a potentially tired material afloat and the performances, especially by Garcia, are surprisingly heartfelt.

The picture does not try too hard to be funny. For instance, Vince Jr. (Ezra Miller) having a penchant for feeding large women crazy amount of food could have been most sleazy, not to mention mean-spirited, if pushed too much. Instead, the subplot involving the youngest son is executed with a gentleness despite his rather crude—but nonetheless hilarious—personality. In addition, the only daughter, Vivian (Dominik García-Lorido), tries to hide the fact that she had been kicked out of school, lost her scholarship, and since been working as a stripper. Although less amusing and equally underdeveloped as Vince Jr.’s subplot, we still care about her and how her secret will be digested by the parents.

Surprisingly, the heart of the picture comes in the form of the patriarch’s shame of really going for his ambition. That is, Vince so wishes to pursue acting, pretending to attend poker games with his buddies when he is actually taking an acting class, but he thinks his wife, Joyce (Julianna Margulies), would laugh in his face if she knew. Garcia is excellent as someone who seems tough on the outside but is actually emotionally wounded. Each time the camera captures only his face, I could feel Vince’s sadness from having to hide a big part of himself from his family. It is a silly situation, perhaps even sitcom-like, but the writing is able to discern between the reality that we—as the audience—and the characters see versus the reality in someone’s mind. Good comedies work as a drama.

I loved it every time the Rizzo household gets really loud because it reminded me of my family. It didn’t matter if they were trying to annoy each other playfully or yelling out of sheer rage. There is a love that can be felt through the walls and the sharp words. It feels like a real family, not some boring group of automatons where everyone insists on holding it all in until the script forces them to explode. Therefore, when the rather typical third act comes around, it is easy to embrace the reactions incited by awkwardly presented revelations.

“City Island” has a most tender layer involving Vince and a woman he has met in the acting class. Their instructor (Alan Arkin) gives them an assignment about secrets. Vince and Molly (Emily Mortimer) often meet at night and quickly discover that they are attuned to each other’s needs. In a way, she becomes his secret. A lesser screenplay and direction might have turned the whole thing into a dirty affair. What they share proves to be more romantic.

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