The Rizzo Family of CITY ISLAND is a family of secret smokers. That smoke, though, is just a screen for the many other secrets that lurk amid this close-knit but volatile family, one that has no problem expressing itself, but not as much talent in sharing confidences. In fact, most of the secrets, smoking included, are the result of the high regard they have for the other’s opinion. In short, they lie because they care.
The patriarch is Vince (Andy Garcia), who not only surreptitiously smokes, but also spends that time reading up on his idol, Marlon Brando. Though Vince is a prison guard, or rather, corrections officer as he prefers to put it, his secret passion is acting. It’s a passion that he is uncomfortable sharing with the still-sexy wife he adores, Joyce (Julianna Margulies), or his kids, daughter Vivian (Dominik Garcia- Lorido, Andys real-life daughter), the first on his side of the family to go to college, and son Vince Jr., who, being a teenager and the youngest in a family of loudmouths, is both a wiseacre and not timid about voicing an opinion.
While the family thinks he is playing poker, Vince is taking acting lessons from a teacher (Alan Arkin) who has a beef with Brando, and a distinct lack of passion for teaching. The latest acting exercise cuts very close to home for Vince. Teamed with an ebullient acting partner, Molly (Emily Mortimer), they are to confide to one another their deepest, darkest secret, the one no one else in the world knows about and then perform that secret as a monologue in one week’s time. It will be a long week.
At the prison, Vince comes face to face with his secret, the son, Tony (Steven Strait) he had and walked out on before he met Joyce, and who is now doing time for stealing an Impala. An automotive choice that even the guards question. Vince, given the opportunity to help rehabilitate the kid that he can’t ignore, brings him home to spend the summer doing renovations. Of course, Tony is a good looking kid, very good looking, and the questions from Vince’s family about why Tony is there are just the beginning of how a carefully balanced structure of well-intentioned fibbing comes quickly unglued as the people within it become more and more suspicious about what’s actually going on.
Writer/director Raymond De Felitta, whose TWO-STORY HOUSE is one of the great unsung films of the past 15 years, has created a story with warmth, heart, and a great deal of yelling. The family chatter has a reality that makes it seem that these conversations have been going on in one form or another for decades as a sort of shorthand. Vince arguing with Vivian about whether or not he should have picked her up at the bus station, Joyce and Vince bickering over what constitutes special when it comes to the traditional Saturday night family dinner, and it is at that very dinner where they break new ground. Joyce circling the question of just how well Vince knew Tony’s mother, and Vince Jr.’s observation that Vivian’s bustline seems to have increased. The ensuing argument doesn’t clear the air about who was right and who was wrong in saying what to whom, family squabbles rarely do, but it does cow Tony, the semi-hardened criminal, into an uncomfortable and not entirely unimpressed silence.
Acute and astute direction annotates the action without being flashy, just very smart and a little provocative. The mood is light, with family confusion played for the its inherent absurdity while never disrespecting the root cause of the deceptions in play. The undercurrent of sexual tension brought into the house by Tony’s sturdy pecs and compelling biceps that have both Joyce and Vivian looking on appreciatively and catching each other out while doing it. Less conventional, but no less formidable is Vince Jr.’s secret, the one that isn’t smoking. That would be his obsession with larger women, and his fantasy to feed donuts to his comely and zaftig classmate. This cinematically unexplored obsession is given an original twist by De Fellita, who uses it as a bonding moment for the unwitting brothers, and an exploration about what the heart wants even when it makes the wanter uncomfortable.
Garcia give a tour de force performance in a film full of them. He is the soul of the film, playing Vince’s emotional journey close to the vest, but like a virtuoso, finding the pointed humor in the man’s passion for his family from which everything else springs, while never for a moment making light of that passion. When Vince finally tells Joyce his secret about Tony’s parentage, the gently played mix of sorrow and acceptance is as palpable as the frustrated familiarity mixed with unconditional love that he has for Vince Jr.’s imaginative snarkiness, Vivian’s distance, and the shorthand relationship into which he and Joyce have settled. He makes Vince’s audition for a minor role into an unexpected moment of hysterical self-revelation that rings true with its awkwardness and go-for-broke optimism.
CITY ISLAND is one of the best films of 2010. It finds the absolute magic of family life gone right, even as it seems to be going very, very wrong. This is the best kind of storytelling, and engaging, honest comedy of errors that, above all, lets the audience find that spark of self-recognition, not with specific events, but with the heart behind them.