City Island: Ethnic, TV-Like Comedy, Audience Award Winner at Tribeca Film Fest

Set in a quaint fishing community on the outskirts of New York City,City Island” is an old fashioned but quite enjoyable, often touching tale of an Italian-American family whose comfortable co-existence is upended by surprising revelations of past secrets and present-day lies.
Winner of the Audience Award at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival, which speaks well of its commercial prospects, “City Island” is an ethnic family comedy that’s only one notch above a TV sitcom: The saga is written and directed by Raymond De Felitta of “Two Family House” fame.
 
As penned, directed, and especially acted, the movie spins quite an engrossing tale, based on misrepresentations, misinterpretations and misunderstandings, which turns into an occasionally smart, always charming comedy about a family that literally stops at nothing to avoid the truth. 
 
True to its genre, the movie contains quite a few stereotypes and clichés, beginning with the protagonist’s name, Vince, which is the most common moniker (even Tarantino, in “Pulp Fiction,” was not above using it) in such fare.
 
Even so, it’s been a while since I have watched Andy Garcia giving such a vivid and appealing performance; he’s also credited as one of the film’s a producer. Twenty-something years ago, around Coppola’s “The Godfather: Part Three” (1990), for which Garcia received a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, I was sure that the handsome, dark-haired, dark-eyed Latino stud would become a star. But, as a result of mediocre choice (and perhaps poor career management), he has not.  Instead, casting directors seem to have relegated him to playing second bananas, often in bad movies, or outright villains, such as his role in Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s Eleven” movies.
 
In the likable “City Island,” which bears vague resemblance to the 1987 Oscar-winning comedy “Moonstruck” (1987), Garcia plays Vince Rizzo, a lifelong resident of the tiny, tradition-steeped Bronx enclave. A family man (truly a paterfamilias), Vince makes his living as a corrections officer, but he longs to become an actor. There is a wonderful scene depicting his auditions for a violent Scorsese crimer, during which he is forced to let go of his mannerisms by a tough female casting exec. And the always reliable Alan Arkin delivers a stop-watching monologue about why actors should never “pause,” alluding, of course, to one of the signature elements of the late great Brando, a “Method” actor if there ever was one.
 
However, unlike Jeff Bridges who said in his Oscar speech that acting is “groovy,” Vince is ashamed to admit his aspirations for such a lofty profession to his family. Indeed, he would rather let his fiery wife Joyce (Julianna Margulies) believe that his weekly poker games are a cover for an extramarital affair than admit that he’s secretly taking acting classes in Manhattan.
 
It turns out that Vince is not the only one who’s incapable (or unable) to tell the truth. At a certain point, you begin to believe that the characters don’t know any other way but to lie. Things change, when Vince is asked to reveal his biggest secret in class, which inadvertently sets off a chaotic chain of events that turns his mundane suburban life upside down.
 
Inspired by the exercise, Vince decides to bring his long-lost ex-con son Tony (Steven Strait) home to meet the family. As a result, it soon becomes clear that everyone—including his college student daughter (Dominik García-Lorido), teenaged son Vinnie, Jr. (Ezra Miller), charismatic acting partner (Emily Mortimer), and drama coach (Alan Arkin)—has something to hide. It’s one of the fun aspects of the picture to dissect the range of secrets, some really minor, while others more significant.
 
What ensues is an entangles tale of deception, half-truths, and confusions, ulitmately propelling Vince and his family members to realize that while the truth may not set them free, it certainly is easier to keep track of than all their well-intentioned white lies.
 
This is the second teaming of Andy Garcia and Julianna Margulies (also an underestimated actress, who deserves to get better roles, as she does on TV).  And as in the first picture, the chemistry between them is just right; some of their interactions are really funny and priceless.
 
In a season dominated by big-budget 3-D and CGI effects movies (“Avatar,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “Clash of the Titans”) and inept, silly romantic comedies (“The Bounty Hunter” starring Gerard Butler and Jennifer Aniston), it’s a relief to attend a small, intimate, enjoyable film that may put a big smile on your face.