It’s a romantic comedy. It’s a dysfunctional family yarn. It’s a thug’s playground with film-about-film winks along the way. It’s City Island, a mostly hard-to-pigeonhole film that somehow manages a precarious genre juggling act with entertainment—and even occasionally artistic—values intact. Writer-director Raymond De Felitta has created a plot schematic by turns tidy and semi-crazy, built around a web of secrets and misunderstandings, pieces of a puzzle we know will resolve by the end credits.
Andy Garcia, whose coproducer status helped get this offbeat film made, nicely works a cleverly devised middle ground between his Italian tough guy roles and the family-friendly peacemaker. Ironically—and film-referentially—Garcia’s tough guy persona emerges at its most frightful during an audition for a Scorsese movie (much as one of Mulholland Drive’s most potent scenes was during an audition). As a prison guard—aka “correction officer”—with a secret from his past come home to roost, Garcia is the hapless head of the Rizzo household in the surprisingly quaint Bronx fishing village of City Island (“like New England by way of Washington Heights,” says an observer).
Among his secrets is a surreptitious wannabe actor wish, and a certain bond to a handsome prisoner (Steven Strait), who he brings home to City Island, and who becomes a conduit for multi-level turbulence on the property. But the Rizzo family’s college-age daughter and teenager son have secrets of their own. Meanwhile, Mom (the feisty fine Julianna Margulies) has her suspicions and dormant mid-life desires, which also get swept under the rug. Suffice to say, serio-comic, neurotic eruptions at the dinner table become one of the film’s prime attractions.
Thanks to the deft touch of De Felitta, it all adds up to a maze of secrets destined for an ultimate confrontation that’s equal parts feel-good and madcap. City Island is a genre mash-up that can be quirky and heartfelt by turns, and elicit a range of audience responses, from disbelief to empathy to hilarity over the outlandish plot puzzle. Thankfully, boredom isn’t one of those responses.