Built like a farce but played with the heart of drama, Raymond de Felitta's City Island is a movie filled with big emotions and big laughs.
De Felitta's script is built around secrets - specifically, the secrets that members of a single family keep from each other. They share a house on City Island, a former fishing village in the Bronx, but they don't seem to share a lot else, despite their regular proximity to each other.
Patriarch Vince Rizzo (Andy Garcia) is a corrections officer who is secretly taking acting classes at night in Manhattan. He tells wife Joyce (Julianna Margulies) that he's at a poker game, and she suspects him of having an affair.
Vince, Joyce and both their children are all secret cigarette smokers. Daughter Vivian (Dominik Garcia-Lardo) has dropped out of college without telling her parents and works as a stripper (also not something she's shared with them). Youngest child Vince Jr. (Ezra Miller) spends his time on the Internet, getting aroused by images of overweight women stuffing their faces with food, and discovers that his hefty neighbor (Carrie Baker Reynolds) has a website to which he quickly enrolls as a member.
The four of them might easily have stumbled along, stuck in their various clandestine ruts. Then Vince recognizes a name among the prisoners in his charge and realizes that the young man, Tony Nardella (Steven Strait), is the illegitimate son he never met because he ran out on the baby's pregnant mother.
As it happens, Tony is eligible for parole, if he has a close relative to take responsibility for him. So, without identifying himself or his motives to the bewildered Tony, Vince gets him released in his custody - ostensibly to work as a handyman at the Rizzo household on City Island until his sentence is up.
Tony is one catalyst who sets things spinning out of Vince's control. The other is Tony's decision to answer an open casting call in a trade publication, which leads to an actual audition for a Martin Scorsese film. Meanwhile, the angry Joyce, convinced that her husband is fooling around, throws herself at the hunky Tony.
De Felitta's script, reminiscent at times of John Patrick Shanley's Moonstruck, is nicely constructed so that Tony, the stranger in the house, quickly becomes the keeper of everyone's secrets - though he doesn't know his own. Things build to a climax that could easily have been tragic in another film. But de Felitta manages to find the love and soul in this family equation, the sense of understanding and forgiveness that leads to reconciliation, rather than implosion.
It helps that he has Garcia as the volatile Vince, a good-hearted dreamer with both the humility and the bluster to create comic sparks. He and Margulies have the rhythms of a long-acquainted couple, riffing and ragging on each other with just enough needle to get the point.
Strait has a solid sense of deadpan comic timing as the defensive con, not quite sure what to make of the kindness he's being offered. Miller, as the chubby-chaser son, also brings a deliciously facetious take to the smart-aleck teen character.
City Island is deceptively funny, a blithe mix of smarts and feeling that never panders to the audience while offering a story about dreams and reality that anyone could identify with.