Friday, June 18, 2010

City Island: New York Family Saved by Acting

The cute and quirky City Island is certainly one of the best films playing in this lightweight summer season.

Set on the Manhattan redoubt of City Island – an island in New York sound that’s officially part of the Bronx and easily accessible to Manhattan, but has more the characteristics of a New England fishing village- this film follows the hidden ambitions of Vince Rizzo (Andy Garcia), a New York City correctional officer with dreams of being an actor, and his family of unhappy misfits. One part Moonstruck, one part Bullets Over Broadway, and one part Ugly Betty, the story weaves together Vince’s desire to break into acting with the effect that finding his long-lost 24-year-old son (now a petty thief) has on his family.

Vince’s newly found son, in fact, is a convict in his jail – one of the many too-pat set-ups that give the film the light lilt of situation comedy. His wife has no idea that he’s studying acting at night – she thinks he’s off playing poker, the kind of thing a correctional officer should be doing. Meanwhile, his teenage son has a feeding obsession with fat women and his daughter has dropped out of college to become a stripper. They’re the types of goofy character ticks they teach you to come up with in screenwriting class; and the movie has all the Sundance bonafieds needed for a young director to be making his mark, including a bevy of experienced actors who bring a lively improvisation to their craft (especially difficult when precisely these acting techniques – such as long pauses – are being highlighted in Vince’s class). That is to say, we believe this family, even if they’re impossibly broad. When Vince’s teacher gives the class the assignment of giving a monologue about their deepest secret, Vince decides to take custody of his long-lost son and bring him home to live with his family (without telling them who he is, of course) as a way of confronting his own deepest secret.

The cases of mistaken assumptions and ultimate payoff that the movie is headed for is obvious way too early, but City Island keeps us enchanted with its original take on the old chestnut of breaking into the biz and self-actualizing one’s deepest desires. It’s actually a young man’s story – the idea of coming either to New York, or from New York, and breaking out of one’s family ties to find one’s true calling. City Island asks us to imagine this now as a middle-aged man’s story, not so much a mid-life crisis as a reawakening. Much of the credit for the success of the film goes to the actors, who dig into these characters to find true feeling. From Ezra Miller as Vince Jr., the bubble-butt obsessed snarky teenager, to Emily Mortimer as Vince’s acting partner, Alan Arkin as his grumpy teacher, or Strait as the hunky son who throws the household into a tizzy.

That son is like Vince’s younger self come to life – virile, sexy, and a bit dangerous. He not only gets Vince’s wife hot, he breaks down the daughter’s defenses, enables Vince Jr. to express his true desires, and gives Vince a career-changing monologue, to boot. Not bad for one day’s work, but the elegiac Strait seems up to the task. What makes this movie hard not to love is how modest yet earnest are the character’s desires, from simply being appreciated to making it as an actor – and how the movie goes about steadily rewarding all of them. Everyone in this movie starts out as an Island (they all are smoking in secret, believing that everyone else in the family disproves of smoking). But once the shirtless, sweating Strait enters the household, neuroses and secrets start to be revealed, and the messy passions of the City start to come to the fore.

There are clearly things about this movie that could be improved but are largely the acceptable deficiencies of a small-budget breakout film: the music is wrong (no music budget), the editing often misses the right moment for a scene cut (not enough money for multiple takes), there are moments that go on a bit too long or metaphors (musclesucker / clamdigger) that seem a bit too strained (could have used one more script polish). But despite all that – or perhaps, because of it – we’re treated to a film that actually cares about writing, acting, and family enough build some deeply felt, humorous insights about all three. In a summer of Iron Men and “Abu-Dhabi-Do,” that’s a real accomplishment.

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