Directed By Raymond De Felitta
Starring Andy Garcia, Juliana Margulies, Steven Strait, Dominik Garcia-Lorido and Ezra Miller
Vince Rizzo (Andy Garcia) is a blue collar correctional officer living with his bickering family in the titular fishing village a short bridge away from the Bronx. His family’s a dysfunctional mess of secrets: Brando-obsessed Vince is slinking off at night to attend acting classes while his wife (Juliana Margulies) believes he’s out gambling, his daughter is working as a stripper, unbeknownst to the parents who assume she’s at college, while their son is using the family credit card online to explore his sexual fetish towards obese women. When Vince embraces his inner Sandy Cohen and brings young convict Tony (Steven Strait, the erstwhile Warren Peace) home to stay, the skeletons soon start to spill out of the closet. The whopper, of course, being that ex-con Tony is the illegitimate love child Vince abandoned at birth – a little fact Vince has neglected to mention to his wife or Tony.
Naturally the potential for convoluted dramatic reveals is high, but in showing its cards and exposing its characters’ secrets to the audience up front, City Island side-steps soap opera melodramatic unveilings in favour of low-key, character-based farce, resulting in a wonderfully well-acted indie comedy gem. Things skirt a little too close to the overly familiar at times as we’re introduced to the cast (the loud, overbearing Italian-American “Noo Yawk” housewife, the rebellious, smart-alecky teenage son, the ex-con with a heart of gold, Alan Arkin in a dysfunctional family indie comedy), but it’s amazing how much fresh material Raymond De Felitta mines from well-trodden territory. Simply finding an area of New York that hasn’t been photographed to death over decades of cinema is an impressive feat in itself, and the little-seen City Island setting provides a wealth of scenic character.
It’s Andy Garcia who’s the most refreshing revelation though; better than he’s been in decades dramatically, he also displays a previously-hidden gift for comedy and great comedic timing. A scene where Vince auditions for a Martin Scorsese movie provides the highlight, in which Garcia breaks out an hilarious (and intentionally cringeworthy) Marlon Brando impression, before Vince segues into a really engrossing, natural conversation with the casting directors as they grill him. It’s the kind of simple, rare and honest performance that makes you forget you’re watching an actor play a role as they disappear into the character. By turns sweet, touching, charismatic and incredibly funny, Garcia’s is an immensely impressive performance, and the best we’ve seen from the actor in a long time.
He’s not the only actor who shines though, and as an ensemble showcase, City Island excels. Garcia’s the unquestioned highlight, but the cast assembled around him is almost as fantastic. Margulies brings impressive nuance to a character that could so easily feel like a shrewish cliché in less skilled hands. Emily Mortimer is brimming with sprightly charm as Vince’s kooky, energetic acting class partner, and their scenes together have a lively chemistry. Steven Straight carries Tony with bags of likeable broody charisma (and female moviegoers probably won’t be too upset that he seems to suffer from the same shirt allergy as Jacob Black), while Garcia’s actual daughter Dominik Garcia-Lorido is an impressive, fiery presence. It’s Ezra Miller as the sarcastic son who proves the weak link, stuck with a relatively one-note character and without the delivery to make anything of it like Margulies can, and while he’s not bad, he just doesn’t have the raw, natural talent on display in the rest of the cast.
As a minor indie comedy release in a sea of big-scale summer blockbusters, City Island is almost destined to get lost in the shuffle. Which is a crying shame, as it’s a wonderful film that’s sharp, incredibly funny, with an abundance of heart, character and charm, brought to life by an amazingly talented ensemble. Andy Garcia’s revelatory performance is worth the price of admission alone, but City Island’s an all-around lovely indie treat in its entirety, too.
City Island is showing in UK cinemas now.