Judge Gordon Sullivan lives alone, but he still manages to be dysfunctional in his own way.
Our review of City Island, published August 26th, 2010, is also available.
Truth is stranger than family
The famous Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy opened his novel Anna Karenina with his most oft-quoted line: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." The film City Island demonstrates both sides of Tolstoy's argument about unhappy families. On the one hand, I highly doubt there's another family struggling with all the various problems that plague the film's family. On the other, City Island makes a great case that (at least some) unhappy families are unhappy because they don't share enough. Despite some problems marrying style and content, the film does a great job balancing the hilarity of the family's differences with the poignancy of its similarities.
Facts of the Case
Vince Rizzo (Andy Garcia, Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead) is a corrections officer living on a tiny island just outside the Bronx who hides a terrible secret: when he tells his wife (Julianna Margulies, ER) that he's going to play poker, he really sneaks into the city to attend an acting class (led by the wonderful Alan Arkin). She's fed up and thinks he's cheating on him, and they both hide the fact that they smoke from each other. Meanwhile, their daughter (Andy Garcia's real-life daughter Dominik Garcia-Lorido) is coming home for "spring break," and she's hiding the fact that she's a stripper, while their son (Ezra Miller, Californication) is obsessed with one of their next door neighbors. Things get really complicated when Vince realizes that his son from a former relationship (Steven Strait, Stop-Loss) is about to be released on provision parole, if he can find a family member to vouch for him. When Vince does and brings him home, everything goes to pieces.
From the first, City Island is an acting dream. Andy Garcia doesn't get asked to helm a lot of movies, but this one shows he's got the chops to do it, even if many producers have forgotten him. His turn as Vince Rizzo is funny, warm, conflicted, complicated, loving, eerily believable. Many Hollywood actors don't have the chops to pull off working-class without resorting to stereotyping, but Garcia runs with it, making Vince funny and easy to identify with. Julianne Margulies has an even more difficult job: she has to balance being obviously in love with Vince while also being fed up with his crap. Emily Mortimer plays Vince's acting partner, and she has to be warm and understanding about Vince and his situation without ever seeming like a romantic option. It's a tough job, but she accomplishes it with apparent ease. The rest of the cast is similarly strong, but these three are the standouts.
City Island also gets some points for being a farce that doesn't feel the need to be a total cartoon. Too often films that have farcical elements are also silly, unrealistic movies, but in the case of City Island there's an attempt to keep things at least in the realm of possibility. No, City Island isn't a gritty drama about family dysfunction, but the actors and story play it straight and not like they're in on the joke. The farcical elements set City Island slightly apart from other dysfunctional family comedies, which is a welcome change.
The film is not perfect (as I'll address below), but the climax is absurd and funny enough that it's easy to forgive whatever faults the film may have.
This Blu-ray from Anchor Bay is generally pretty strong. The VC-1 transfer does a solid job with color saturation and fine details. However, night shots show some noise and there are a few compression artifacts here and there. It's certainly very watchable, just not reference quality. The main audio track is an uncompressed PCM surround track, though the surrounds don't really get any use. Dialogue comes out through the center channel, though it's not well balanced with the rest of the sound track. This makes dialogue a bit difficult to hear in places without remote fiddling, though the inclusion of English SDH subtitles helps a bit.
Extras are short, but sweet. The first is an audio commentary with director Raymond De Felitta and Andy Garcia, where the two have a friendly chat about how the film came to be made in addition to lots of humorous banter. Instead of the typical making-of featurette, we get a "Dinner with the Rizzos," where the actors who played the family sit down at a table and discuss their thoughts on their characters, the making of the film, etc. The disc also includes 15 minutes of deleted scenes, including another family meal. Finally, the film's trailer is included.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Not everything about City Island hangs together. It's definitely going for the farcical, but for that to work the film needs to be tight as a drum. That doesn't quite work for a couple of reasons. First, thematically, the film is trying to deal with how loose life actually is, so the material is fighting the film's style. Second, the film feels like it perhaps grew out of improv, or was in some other way catch-as-catch-can. Several scenes seem to just end, transitions between scenes can be awkward, and a number of scenes don't start as quickly as they could. This slows the film down (especially in the second act), which blunts the impact of some of the comedy
I have nothing against Ezra Miller's acting, and in fact he's quite funny in a number of scenes, but his character feels very tacked on. He doesn't seem really necessary to the drama of the family in the way that his sister, half-brother, mother, and father do. I think, combined with my previous point, this shows that the film could perhaps have used just a hint or two of workshopping to get it completely nailed down.
There are also those who will surely find the film unbelievable, ridiculous, and without humor. Certainly, City Island rewards patience and a willingness to join its tiny island world. Those not willing to go there after seeing the trailer should probably avoid the film.
The real City Island is a tiny little spit of land just outside the Bronx. The film City Island is a fairly low-key comedy that tries to shed a little bit of light on family dysfunction. The strong performances from everyone involved make it easy to ignore the film's faults, and it's almost certainly worth a rental for fans of the actors. Those looking to purchase will find a decent audiovisual presentation and just enough extras to be satisfying.
I learned the film's lesson and won't keep any secrets: City Island is not guilty.
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