The dysfunctional family movie is kind of an icky genre overall. I tend to blame Robert Redford’s Oscar-winning Ordinary People (not a link to that movie but to the last dysfunctional family film I can recall seeing) but The Lion In Winter pre-dates it and is really pretty much the same formula. And, frankly, the melodramas of the ‘30s are pretty much the same beast, though due to the conventions of the day, less explicitly icky.
This is often true whether the movies are meant to be super-dramatic, like People was, or comedies, which can sometimes be ickier as they invite you to take some truly horrible things lightly.
So, City Island is a refreshing entry into the field, with the dysfunction being really a sort of cultural artifact of this little spot in New York called City Island. (Not that this is the only place in the world where people’s expectations and roles are so ossified they’re afraid to talk about what they want.)
And it’s funny! They’re good people with some problems that seem like they could be mostly easily resolved, which makes it a lot less icky to be laughing at those problems.
The story is this: Vince, Joyce and Vivian live in their little house on City Island, as they have for over 20 years. Vince (Andy Garcia) is a corrections officer. Joyce (Julianna Marguiles) is a housewife. Vivian (Garcia’s real-life daughter Dominik Garcia-Lorido) is a college student. Vince, Jr. (Ezra Miller) is in high school having trouble with girls. They’re the yell-y sort of family you’d expect from, I dunno, what’s the stereotype? Queens, I guess? Not quite New Jersey loud, but a far cry from the repressed, button-down personae that typically populate these sorts of films.
I’m not sure if the outwardness of it all isn’t part of what makes it work. You always know where these guys stand, and you sort of expect that part of wearing things on their sleeves means that they don’t bury a lot of heavy sins.
In this case, the catalyst of change comes in the form of a Tony Nardella (Steven Strait), who gets incarcerated in Vince’s facility. Vince decides to get Nardella released to him, and puts him up in the (unfinished) boat shed (Vince has been working on for years) on the condition that he help finish it.
And through Tony, we see all the family’s secrets. This is essentially the movie-opening, by the way, I’m not really giving anything away. For example, they all smoke. They all go through great pains to hide that from each other. Vince? He wants to be Robert De Niro. Vivian? She’s having trouble in college. Vince, Jr.? Well, the troubles he’s having with girls are not the usual troubles, exactly.
Tony, of course, thinks they’re all crazy. And, as you might expect, he’s the source of a number of other mysteries.
Ultimately, there’s a strong current of family togetherness running through the whole thing, so the ickiness is relatively subdued.
Garcia’s performance is particularly wonderful, as the cop(ish) wanting to be an actor. He gets to do a really stiff De Niro imitation that’s so good, you forget when he goes back to being Vince, that’s not really him (the actor) either.
His daughter seems to be a natural. Marguiles is always good, fitting as naturally in as a hard-ass housewife as she has in her more sensitive roles. Other standouts include Emily Mortimer as a wacky acting partner of Garcia, and Alan Arkin in a small (but great) role as their drama coach.
Kudos to writer-director Raymond De Felitta (The Thing About My Folks) for, uh, putting the fun back into family dysfunctional flicks.
Thumbs up from The Boy and the Old Man, too.