4 stars, (PG-13)
City Island is a noisy, rude, charming farce. It mixes broad comedy with light drama. This is a little movie - undemanding, a bit too broad and sitcommy at times, with plot mechanics that occasionally get in the way of the characters. Regardless, it won me over. I don't want to oversell the film, as I've learned that when you are generous with your praise of a small movie, people tend to check it out and come back to you saying, "That was it? That was all there was to it!?" But I'll tell you this: If they made a sequel to City Island that skipped all the contrivances and just followed the family around for a week, I'd be there in a heartbeat.
The setting is City Island, a beguiling one-square mile fishing village in the Bronx. Who knew? The set-up: Vince Rizzo (Andy Garcia) is a prison guard with a secret. He longs to be an actor and takes an acting class in the evening. The unassuming blue-collar guy is so convinced that his wife would consider the venture foolish that he lies regularly and tells her he's attending a poker game.
His wife, Joyce (Julianna Margulies), doesn't believe the excuse and suspects that Vince is having an affair. God help everybody if she ever met Molly (Emily Mortimer), Vince's strictly platonic friend from acting class.
Teenage son Vince Jr. (Ezra Miller) also has a secret. He's got a fetish for fat women. Daughter Vivian (Dominik Garcia-Lorido) has a secret too. She lost her college scholarship and is working as a stripper to earn money to return to school.
Finally, there's Tony Nardia (Steven Strait), who is a secret. The young convict, a recent arrival at the prison, doesn't know it, but Vince is his daddy, the man who left the kid's mother as soon as he found out she was pregnant. When Vince recognizes the young man's name, he arranges to have him paroled in his custody and takes him home for a 30-day stay, without telling Tony, Joyce, Vince Jr. or Vivian the truth about the relationship.
Is that enough plot for you? Yes, I know it sounds overloaded, but that's only because it is. Remember, this is a farce, and farces rely on secrets and mistaken encounters. City Island works as a farce - it's funny - but what charmed me about the film was not the comical situations, but the humanity of the characters experiencing the craziness. Vince is a lovable dope and Andy Garcia makes his naivete endearing rather than annoying. Joyce gets loud a lot, but that's because she's carrying the weight of her suspicions and fears. Julianna Margulies handles the role nicely. The kids are each afforded only one character detail, but they feel real anyway. Emily Mortimer is solid as Vince's confidante and pal.
Steven Strait's character, Tony Nardia, is the big surprise. His character is trite - a dreamboat parolee who observes the family in action and realizes that he's the most honest member of the household, but Strait succeeds in bringing out the humanity in his role. Then there's Alan Arkin, the tough acting teacher. He has a few amusing moments, but is the shtickiest member of the cast.
I've read a few reviews where they analyze the movie to death. I suggest you avoid that and just sit back, watch the lunacy, enjoy the scenery and savor the characters. City Island is a small, unassuming movie and it's a winner.