Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Jun 17, 2010 9:14 pm 
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Secrets and lies

City Island is the name of a little-known but real chunk of the Bronx that looks and feels more like a fishing village than the city of New York of which it's a part. Setting this story of a combative working class family in this sweet, unique location softens the luridness of the plot and helps keep this movie from seeming just a filmed stage play. The melodrama is further softened by a comic edge, which surely is needed when there's an illegitimate son who's in prison, a college student daughter who's secretly working as a pole dancer, and a teenage boy with a fetish for obese women.

Dinner with Vince, Vince Jr., Joyce, and Vivian Rizzo is a shouting match.

And that's a bit odd because the Rizzos are harboring secrets from each other, especially Vince (Andy Garcia, down-to-earth and likable for a change). He's a prison guard, who pretends he's going off to play poker after dinner when he's really in acting class taught by a (surprise) acidic Alan Arkin. Being an actor is a lifelong dream, but it's too sissy or he's too unsure of his ability to reveal this. He's got a harder-edged secret too: the facility where he works has just turned up Tony Nardella (Steven Strait), a hunky young man he recognizes as the illegitimate offspring he's never seen. Vince Jr. (Ezra Miller) is stalking fat girls, including one right nearby who has a kind of online club for fat fetishists with code word "Botero." Anything is possible, but it may strain credulity the most that Vivian (Dominik García-Lorido), who's lost her college scholarship due to misbehavior, is secretly making money to return to school by working as a stripper in a joint called Hell's Half Acre. Vince's wife Joyce (Julianna Margulies), who answers the phone at a law office, really isn't hiding anything. But when Vince brings Tony home on a work-furlough arrangement, without telling who he is, she and Tony start eying each other and she soon has a secret too.

It's a classic arc of comedy that all is revealed and all is forgiven at the end, and that's what happens here. Along the way there is some serious misunderstanding and each actor gets to do his or her little (or big) turn. Ezra Miller, who got his start as star of Antonio Campos' 2008 afterschool, makes some pungent contributions to the dinner table mêlées, though his subplot is too sub- for his peculiar fetish to ever quite make sense. Steven Strait has a very strong presence that serves him well in an obviously secondary role. It's a delicious irony that after time served at the Rizzo dinner table, he starts half thinking prison might be better than this nuthouse. But it's not really a nuthouse: there's an affectionate New York warmth to the verbal battles. Andy and Julianna as the well-worn husband and wife have the best parts. It's unusual for Garcia to play a character who's basically a decent guy, and he makes the most of it. Maybe there's nothing original about the way his part is written or how he plays it but the material is winning nonetheless.

For a movie that's an acting showcase City Island takes its biggest chance in referring overtly to the thespian's craft. Alan Arkin's big speech is one at the drama class in which he complains about the bad influence of Brando and Method acting. He's wasted five years of his life, he gripes, listening to "pauses." Next week's assignment is to tell your deepest, darkest secret -- another risk, to highlight the plot's central point so blatantly. In a nice irony Tony bonds with Vince and gives him the best acting tip and exhibits the best display of sample "acting," showing how he plays tough in prison or on the street.

Drama class is where Emily Mortimer comes in, as Molly. She and Vince get paired off to do next week's assignment and a friendship develops in which Molly becomes Vince's coach and cheerleader. Mortimer's role has an acting twist: her real-life English accent turns out here to be a put-on one. This doesn't quite work and though Mortimer has been praised for her performance, the role of Molly is a little too saccharine and ultimately rings false. Perhaps everything does. But that doesn't really matter too much because the proceedings are nonstop fun and sometimes even a little suspenseful. In a season not rich in good American independent films, City Island may smell a little too strongly but it still smells like a rose.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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