Friday, August 20, 2010

On DVD: "City Island"

Raymond De Felitta's City Island is a fundamentally nice and structurally sound movie, but too much of the scaffolding is showing. De Felitta's script feels like the work of a screenwriting class's star student: everyone has a back story, everyone has a secret, everyone knows just enough (but only enough!) to misinterpret everything else, and the entire plot comes together with the kind of split-second precision that makes an audience chuckle, so long as they're not all that concerned with reality. There are moments here that play, and performers doing their level best, but the picture too often feels forced and contrived.
Andy Garcia (who co-produced) stars as Vince Rizzo, a corrections officer who lives with his family in the titular area, a fishing village in the Bronx. His dysfunctional family is mostly defined by the secrets they keep from each other: Vince has been attending acting classes while telling his wife he's at poker games; daughter Vivian (Dominik Garcia-Lorido, Garcia's real daughter), who they think is at college, is actually a stripper; Vince Jr. (Ezra Miller) is developing a peculiar online fetish; and everyone, including mother Joyce (Julianna Marguiles) is apparently pretending like they don't smoke. Into this mess comes Tony (Steven Strait), who Vince has helped get out of the joint because, come to find out, he's Vince's long-abandoned son. Vince brings Tony home, but doesn't tell anyone (including Tony) about their familial connection.

The picture's primary allure is its performers. Garcia, who has now been doing this kind of interesting character work for longer than his stab at leading man status, has found a fine showcase for his specific talents in Vince, who is soft-spoken, gentle, and likable, but can be forceful and commanding when necessary. He's far from a model father--in several scenes, he seems downright clueless as to how to communicate with his kids--and his offspring seem to have figured out long ago exactly how to dodge and humor him. But the acting is his secret passion; he connects with a classmate (Emily Mortimer, very good), who encourages him to go out for a big audition (the ensuing scene is rather thrilling--it feels like the real thing).

Marguiles is tough and believable as the frustrated wife; she sports a little too much make-up, is a little too easily set off, and is a little too eager to think the worst about her husband, particularly with shirtless Tony toiling out in the boat house. As the mysterious stranger, Nardella has a loaded presence, and DeFelitta wisely uses him as a bit of a time bomb--longing looks are exchanged with both Vince's wife and his daughter, leaving the audience wondering who he's going to sleep with first (and which would be worse, for everyone). Talented young Ezra Miller is terrific as the horny son--this kid is a little shit, but he's mighty funny, and you find yourself laughing at his snark in spite of yourself (as you so often have to with a teenage boy like this). And Alan Arkin is always welcome, even in a too-brief role as Garcia's acting teacher ("No more pauses!" he rails. "If you wanna think, do it in the privacy of your own home!").

But the details are frequently off (to get the PG-13 rating, Vivian works at one of those movie strip clubs where no one's actually naked, and Vince Jr.'s porn sites all cover up the naughty bits), and the family's dysfunction has a by-the-books feel--everything is too constructed, too neat, with all the little secrets equally distributed and addressed. The little implosions along the way are, unfortunately, controlled demolition; the big family dinner that falls apart, for example, is just too written, playing like a filmed idea ("They should try to have a welcome dinner, and then everyone ends up getting mad and leaving the table one by one!") rather than an organic happening. As the film moves into its third act, the plot gears start to grind more loudly, with a steady stream of misunderstandings, overheard conversations, mistaken intentions, and overheated confrontations. And, of course, it all has to crash together at the same time, in a climax where everyone yells and everything is revealed and lessons are learned, etc. The kind of timing that would require all of that to happen at once would be more at home on an episode of Three's Company--it's too neat, too clean, too easy.

City Island has plenty of fine scenes, and there's not a bad performance in it. But the film's subject matter and its form are at odds--it wants to be about the messiness and loose ends of real life and real family, but it's as tightly wound and formally executed as a door-slamming farce.

"City Island" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, August 24th. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

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