"City Island": Secrets and Lies

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In the guilty film City Island, Vince Rizzo (Andy Garcia) wants to tell you his deepest, most personal secret. One thing he hides from his wife is that he aspires to be an actor. That’s why he tells spouse Joyce (Julianna Margulies) that he’s out playing poker when actually he’s taking an acting class with coach Michael Malakov (Alan Arkin). He reads a Brando biography in the bathroom and scurries when he’s caught, like some kind of hangdog, irrepressible teenage boy. His lame attempts at lies makes Joyce think he’s seeing another woman. For Vince, that’s preferable to the truth.

That’s not all he’s hiding. Vince, a corrections officer, chances upon the son he abandoned before birth. That kid, Tony (Steven Strait), is now all growed-up and in the clink for a grand theft auto beef. Tony would be released on parole if only he had a family member to claim him. Vince, with two-plus decades of guilt coming down on him, takes him under his care under the suspicious auspices of having Tony do a construction project for him.

This isn’t happy news at first for Joyce, but she’s got her own little lies going. She secretly smokes, for starters. And she’s feeling a little ignored and unfulfilled by her marriage to Vince. It makes her do some things to retaliate.

Their daughter, Vivian (Dominik GarcÍa-Lorido) is back home visiting on spring break from college. Or so she’d have her folks think. Really, she’s stripping at a club called Hell’s Half Acre. Her brother, Vince Jr. (Ezra Miller), shouldn’t throw stones, but he does, ramping up every explosive family argument with recriminations and sly deflections from his own sins. He smokes, too, skips school, and fetishizes plus-size women — among them his neighbor who has a naughty website with a live cam in the kitchen.

It may all sound miserable, but writer/director Raymond De Felitta pulls it off beautifully and gives the drama a light nudge toward comedy. The actors are game and then some.

The titular locale plays a key role as well. City Island, we’re told, is a fishing village in Bronx, New York. It’s a cute little place somewhere between coastal Nantucket and a little lake town in Michigan. “Clam diggers,” we’re told, are City Island natives. “Mussel suckers” are those who moved there from somewhere else. Vince is a purebred clam digger.

The family is always griping at each other, and their frustrations have the ring of truth to them. The Rizzos seem both utterly dysfunctional and totally normal. It separates City Island from a film such as American Beauty, where the drama was so pronounced, larger than life, and, ostensibly, ripped from the audience’s own dirty little lives. City Island escapes that fate because it knows we’re all mussel suckers. It takes joy in opening a window into the world rather than holding up an incriminating mirror.

“City Island’ is a nice metaphor otherwise, an oxymoron highlighting how packed together these people are, with plenty of interaction but not much communications. The film looks good — combining domestic realism and cinematic cityscape. Small totems of the character’s secrets keep popping up at inopportune times. The film feels like another one.

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