Widgets Magazine

Pity Island

City Island, the fishing village that harbors the shenanigans and laughs in director Raymond De Felitta’s film, is technically part of the Bronx; it shares, however, none of the borough’s typical harshness–with bright sunlight and the bay perpetually in view, we are assured that nothing truly bad could occur here. Curious, then, is the procession of issues that affects Vincent Rizzo (Andy Garcia) and his family. Early on, we find Vincent standing on his roof; while reading an acting manual called “Brando,” he sneakily smokes a cigarette. Inside, his wife Joyce (Julianna Margulies) is yelling at their adolescent son Vince, Jr. (Ezra Miller), who is, we see from a camera angle that Joyce isn’t privy to, ogling internet pornography. And so we see the over-arching obsession of “City Island”: secrets between family members and the comedy that ensues from their clumsy handling. Indeed, later we find Vincent on the roof again, smoking another illicit cigarette; a floor down, on the balcony, his wife Joyce is furtively puffing away at one of her own while, sure enough, on the ground floor, their son is doing the same.

Vincent has been lying to Joyce, telling her he is out playing poker while actually taking classes to nurture his childhood dream of being an actor–a far cry from his current job as a corrections officer. Early on, we find him taking a quick work break: harassed by trouble even when outside the prison walls, he is on the phone with his daughter Vivian (Dominik Garcia-Lorido), whose petulance is unsurprising until we notice the locker from which she’s rooting out her belongings isn’t that of a college–where papa Vincent believes her to be–but a strip-joint. When Vincent drives her home from the bus station and asks about school, his obliviousness almost evokes pathos until we are jarred by resounding honking as he distractedly bumps into the car in front. De Felitta generates comedy by playing with the dramatic irony and the ridiculousness of his characters’ scrapes; we would pity such terribly afflicted people, but the sunny score, pinball-pace and sheer volume of misfortune keeps us guffawing along rather than bogging us down.

Two outsiders provide the impetus for the plot: Tony (Steven Strait), a new transfer to the prison who Vincent realizes is actually his son from a now-deceased woman he abandoned long ago, and the lovely but haunted Molly (Emily Mortimer), who befriends Vincent in acting class after an exercise involves exchanging secrets. In one of the better sequences, Molly urges Vincent to attend his first-ever audition. Initially contorting his face and squelching out a ridiculous Marlon Brando imitation, he is politely rejected–but just as he walks away they call him back and suggest he use his experience as a prison warden, inspiring Vincent to do a rendition, equally hilarious and impassioned, of a psycho tough-guy. He scores a call-back. Celebrating later, Molly announces the achievement to a bar full of strangers; when they join Molly’s applause for Vincent we can’t help getting carried away with our protagonist’s triumph.

Yet, finally “City Island” fails to straddle the line where we can both laugh at and root for its characters because the very thing that makes them so funny–a viciousness and irreverence in portraying their problems–eventually leaves us unmoved by suggestions of their personal development. The final crescendo is a confrontation outside the house where everybody spills their respective beans. The tears and cries of forgiveness that result are unconvincing to the verge of being self-parodying and are really quite funny. Indeed, it would be understandable to suspect the film of being satirical were it not for the persistent final attempts to move us, like with Molly leaving the city, ostensibly inspired to confront her own demons–attempting to echo, perhaps, a winning close like Matt Damon’s in “Good Will Hunting.” “City Island” seems to implore us to see that through suffering comes self-knowledge and growth, but the underlying brutality with which the film hacks away at the characters for comedic effect means that by the end, there isn’t a scrap of them left for us to believe in or care about. We just don’t know what to make of these apples.