Movie Review: City Island

Dysfunctional family genre gets new lease of life

The trend for extrapolating drama from a dysfunctional family seems to be a go-to framework for indie directors on a budget. It’s been done so many times, that films which contrinue to build themselves around this once-failsafe concept are in danger of getting unfair reviews, based more on fatigue at the same tedious story told with barely-different quirky characters all mooching around the same life issues.

And so…to the film. Yes, the family is dysfunctional, miserable and self consciously angry about it, but there is a warmth here, a joy, a spark of originality that elevates this film from the mulch of its contemporaries (like the recent Lymelife). Andy Garcia, usually so threatening and gruff, does an Alec Baldwin in 30 Rock here, with his comedic, bumbling Vince Rizzo, an emotionally stunted prison officer who harbours a secret dream of acting and the strength of his performance is truly remarkable.

Secrets are the order of the day, with the whole family practically crawling with them – a daughter funding her way through college by nefarious means, a snarky adolescent son (star of the future Ezra Miller) son just discovering what it means to be a man with a “type” you’d rather keep to yourself, and a wife (a beautifully nasty yet empathetic harridan created by the wonderful Julianna Margulies) who has some sordid secrets of her own. And it’s during Vince’s acting class that we discover the biggest secret of all – a secret son whose reappearance has the potential to blast the already shaky foundations of this beachside dwelling family to oblivion.

At least, that what we’ve come to expect from these films, especially ones which, like City Island, are dependent less on tricky plots and more on the quirks and foibles of the characters. Though the script is watertight too, with scenes you think you can predict veering off into weird and wonderful territory. It’s Garcia’s film though, and he carries it like Atlas but with a comedic grace and impetus reminiscent of Kevin Spacey in American Beauty – though refreshingly, far less depressing and with a much healthier body count.

A surprising, thoughtful and funny gem.

Andrea Hubert