Economy of scale and vision is an underrated thing in film, but writer-director Raymond De Felitta (Two Family House, The Thing About My Folks) has made a career out of trading in the grey area where familial exasperation and love meet in jarring fashion. Boomer-targeted audience-pleaser City Island is his latest effort, and if its narrative moves come across too often as workshopped-cute contrivances, it at least serves as a winning showcase for star Andy Garcia.
Set in a quaint, insular fishing community on the outskirts of New York City, the movie details a family whose comfortable coexistence is upended by a series of surprising revelations. Family man Vince Rizzo (Garcia) is a lifelong resident of the tiny, tradition-steeped Bronx enclave of City Island. While he makes his living as a corrections officer, Vince secretly longs to become an actor. Ashamed to admit his aspirations to his family, Vince would rather let his fiery wife Joyce (Julianna Margulies) believe his weekly poker games are a cover for an extramarital affair than admit he's secretly taking acting classes in Manhattan.
When Vince is asked to reveal his biggest secret in class, he inadvertently sets off a chaotic chain of events that turns his suburban life upside down. Inspired by the exercise, and after stumbling across his long-lost son from a previous relationship, Tony Nardella (Steven Strait), in prison, Vince impulsively decides to force-furlough Tony and bring him home to meet his family. Soon it becomes clear that everyone — including Vince's college student daughter Vivian (Dominik Garcia-Lorido, Garcia's real-life daughter), teenage son Vinnie, Jr. (Ezra Miller), and charismatic acting class partner, Molly Charlesworth (Emily Mortimer) — has something to hide. As secrets of the past collide with lies and half-truths of the present, this perfect storm of deception and confusion makes Vince and his family members realize that the truth may not set them free, but it certainly is easier to keep track of.
De Felitta has an unfussy directorial approach that allows for a lived-in feel, and he clearly has a nice touch with actors as well. The main problem is that City Island, which won the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival Audience Award, delivers little more than surface conflict. Much of the movie's color and almost all of its plot details — from Vinnie, Jr.'s porn-fueled chubbie-chasing and its slow bleed into a relationship with a neighbor, to Vivian's improbable stripping and Joyce and Tony's flirtation with something on the side — come across as nakedly designed to just put characters at odds, and nothing else. The material would seem better suited for darker, inwardly reflected psychological exploration, but City Island is rated PG-13 (rather thinly defended by De Felitta in the DVD's bonus material), and keeps any of these instincts at bay, interested instead only in dizzy, theatrical-style contretemps.
The result is easy on the brain if also uninspired — a seriocomic souffle that, excepting the more quiet intrigue of Vince and Molly's relationship, just opts to slowly turn up the volume of all its characters' dialogue, until a conclusion that recalls any number of supposedly autobiographical plays ending with everyone arguing in melodramatic fashion and gesticulating wildly in an open street, with a nosy neighbor in curlers gawking at the familial trainwreck. (There's no one in curlers here.) Garcia is as warm and engaging a presence as always, and he goes a long way toward making this City worth visiting, but De Felitta confuses inoffensiveness and insightfulness, and one's esteem and appreciation for this work dissipates with each minute it recedes into memory.
Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case with a hollowed-out cover spindle, to reduce the amount of plastic used in packaging, City Island comes to DVD presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, spread out over a dozen static menu chapter stops, with a Dolby digital 5.1 audio track and optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles. Bonus features include a feature-length audio commentary track with multi-hyphenate De Felitta and Garcia, also a producer on the film. Their rapport is warm and conversational, touching on everything from the movie's real-life setting and De Felitta's filmmaking advice (if one has the opportunity, point the camera at water, since it's "free set dressing," and immediately makes one's movie seem to have a higher budget) to the trick of using cobbled-together production funding to bring in Polish composer Jan Kaczmarek, and the pole-dancing skills that Garcia's daughter had to learn for the film.
Other bonus features include 15 minutes of deleted and extended scenes, as well as a "Dinner With the Rizzos" featurette which gathers the director and his cast around a table for some pasta and a back-slapping tour of reminiscence through the production, interspersed with film clips. There is also the theatrical preview for City Island and five other trailers, including for Sunshine Cleaning, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt and After.Life. The Blu-ray edition of the film includes the same bonus features, plus an iTunes-compatible digital copy of the film. To purchase the DVD via Amazon, click here. C (Movie) B (Disc)