Saturday, May 01, 2010

City Island

Has anybody ever taken the time to mention to Andy Garcia that he’s not Italian? Doesn’t really matter, I guess, but this cat has done an awful lot of movies in which he plays Italian dudes, gangsters, or guys who take down gangsters. Here he plays an Italian dude who is a corrections officer in the Bronx. He really wants to be an actor, though; and he’s taking lessons on the side for that, but he tells his wife he’s off playing poker. His wife, of course, thinks he’s with another woman. Vince Rizzo (Garcia), his wife Joyce (Julianna Margulies), and their two kids all smoke - and every one of them hides it from the rest of the family. Mom and Dad each think the other quit.

There are more movies about dysfunctional families out there than you can shake a stick - or a cliché - at; but I think I’m going to argue that this isn’t one of them, although I also think that it thinks it wants to be. Movies about dysfunctional families take themselves awfully seriously though, and this one is a bit too light-hearted (and, oddly, kinetic) to give the impression that it takes itself too seriously. It’s a little melodramatic in the first reel, but then smoothes out; and the ending is surprisingly organic and effective for one that is foreshadowed to be a slapdash pulling together of loose ends.

All of the Rizzos begin the film with at least one secret (other than the smoking), except for Joyce, who acquires her secret later. In addition to the acting class, Vince has a close relationship with a fellow student (Emily Mortimer, whose character has secrets of her own), which is totally platonic and completely forthright but which would appear highly suspicious - if anyone else knew about it; and he also has a son from a previous marriage - who has earned a provisional parole, from the prison where Vince works, provided he has somewhere to go. Vince Jr. has a non-sexual fetish for plump women who like to be fed, and his sister Vivian (possibly the two most imaginatively named children not fathered by George Foreman) works as a stripper so she can earn the money she needs to get back into the college she lost her scholarship to and was kicked out of because she got caught smoking pot in her dorm room.

When I say the film is kinetic, what I have in mind is the editing that establishes these secrets and reveals how well-hidden (or not) they are from the rest of the family by their keepers. We get it already - all of this stuff is happening all at once, and no one seems to be the wiser about anyone else’s goings on; and besides behing heavy-handed, the hectic setup does the film a disservice - by constantly poking the viewer with a jump cut to another ridiculous scene, director Raymond De Felitta leads us toward the inevitable (though admittedly funny) ending that brings all the characters together for a series of secret-revelations. You may well miss the fact that Vince Rizzo is learning quite a bit about himself and evolving as a husband and father.

Garcia gets high marks for pulling this off in spite of the film’s apparent predilection to list toward each scene’s slapstick-iest part - and for bringing real gravity to the film’s climax, when he reveals his true identity to his son. He gets a little too bombastic and melodramatic in some of the early scenes (especially at the dinner table); but these are also the scenes that show the film taking itself the most seriously, and the acting fits the tone here, even if that tone hasn’t quite found its proper footing yet. Once the tone shifts (correctly) to the farcical, everything - including Garcia’s acting - loosens up, and the film begins to bloom.

I could have done without the nod to God at the end, but what are you going to do? Pointing the ending of an art film toward a mainstream crowd is counterproductive, but not a fatal misstep here; at least it’s not a very long scene. It's the smarmy resolution to Mortimer's character that ultimately seats this film in the very good - but not great - section.

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