City Island is a small movie about real people. Imagine that! No explosions, no talking animals, no drag queens talking about shopping, no British kids flying around on broomsticks, no overpaid Scientologists, and as far as I could tell, no computer animation. Nope, it’s just a story about a small Italian family and their quirks and conflicts. It’s also one of the more rewarding movies I’ve seen all summer.
I went into City Island under rare and hugely agreeable conditions – I had no idea beforehand what it was about, and no idea who was in it, aside from Andy Garcia and Julianna Margulies. All I had was the title. The title City Island refers to the New York neighborhood of the same name, a small fishing community that’s considered part of The Bronx. City Island has been filmed before, most notably in movies such as Spike Lee’s Summer Of Sam and Robert DeNiro’s A Bronx Tale, and I’m always happy to see it on film.
My interest stems largely from the fact that I grew up a couple miles from there. I still know plenty of people who live and work there. I’m familiar. As many can surely relate, it’s a unique movie-going experience when you get to see a place you know captured on film, and an even better one when it’s a good movie.
City Island centers around Vince Rizzo (Andy Garcia), a corrections officer with long-buried dreams of an acting career. Vince starts taking acting classes at night, but hiding it from his wife Joyce (Julianna Margulies) because she wouldn’t understand. Vince’s high-school-age son is secretly obsessed with fat ladies (in a subplot that goes to some very weird places) and his college-age-daughter is secretly a stripper (in a subplot that isn’t nearly weird enough). The story kicks into gear when Vince goes into his day job one day and meets a long-lost family member (Steven Strait, who looks like a taller Peter Dinklage). From that moment on, a comedy of errors ensues that involves every one of the aforementioned plot threads.
A nice surprise is that the cast has a couple ringers in smaller roles, including the underrated Emily Mortimer (see her in Transsiberian) as Vince’s acting partner and confidante, and Alan Arkin as Vince’s acting teacher. Boy, I can’t tell you what a joy it is to stumble across an under-advertised Alan Arkin appearance. There’s even a brief cameo from Sharon Angela, who was Rosalie Aprile on The Sopranos. (Yeah, I’m such a weird Sopranos fan that Rosalie Aprile is one of my favorite characters from that show.)
But the movie is driven by Andy Garcia and Julianna Margulies, and they’re both hugely likable and fun, although I really do have to call them out on the accent. If there’s any accent I know well enough to critique, it’s this one, and while these two great actors make a terrific effort, they don’t quite hit it consistently. You know Vinnie Pastore, Big Pussy from The Sopranos (speaking of…)? That’s the accent. I don’t have it, but Big Pussy does. Andy Garcia doesn’t quite get there, but he does give his most charming, surprising, and funny performance in years – decent consolation prize, right?
I really liked this movie. It has a good heart. That’s such a chump of a review quote, but it’s actually totally refreshing when you walk into a movie theater and find it. City Island has a theme, or a moral (depending on how you want to take it), but it reveals that theme at a relaxed pace and doesn’t beat you over the head with it. I also liked the tone of the movie – it’s a family comedy, but it doesn’t strain for laughs (even with the chubby-chaser stuff), and it finds genuine laughs in even those moments that any other movie would play overly serious.
City Island is the definition of amiable and unpretentious, and in this particular movie summer of overheated sequels and remakes, that’s more a refreshing sight than a Mister Softee truck after a long day at the beach.