The Rizzos are a happy family, but they don’t know it. Joyce (Julianna Margulies) thinks Vince (Andy Garcia) is having an affair. He works as a prison guard, longs to be known as a “corrections officer,” and dreams of emulating Marlon Brando. Their daughter Vivian (Dominik Garcia-Lorido) has lost her college scholarship and works as a stripper, while Vinnie Jr. (Ezra Miller) lusts fruitlessly after ample girls who think his offers of food, lots of food, are fat-girl jokes.
At the center of City Island, the Rizzos turn Tolstoy’s dictum on its head, showing how happy families can be as different from one another as those who are unhappy. To this end, Garcia (who also produced) subdues his usual energy almost to the point of atrophy. The pallid corridors of his workplace reflect the gloom of its inhabitants, and his lingering gazes at a new prisoner, Tony Nardella (Steve Strait) suggest gloomily repressed lusts rather than family comedy. Sentence by sentence, shot by shot, though, a delectable visual conceit hints that angst and trauma are not quite what the film has in mind.
Rather, it returns again and again to the ways the Rizzos keep missing their happiness. During one sequence, the camera catches each member reflectively smoking alone, even as they all earnestly assure the others they’ve kicked the habit for good. The series of hastily stubbed out cigarettes is metaphorical: the smokers all want something that others’ expectations and their own fears conspire to deny them. When Vinnie invites Nardella home for the last 30 days of his parole, just as Vivian continues her face-saving fiction of a college career by coming home for spring break, the characters plunge into a baroque gavotte of tenderness, revelation, and farce.
The success of this mixture depends on the exceptionally strong cast. Margulies plays a more acid character than her usual roles allow, ready to snap from catlike contentment to feisty combativeness whenever her husband appears. Joyce cuts coupons from a stack of newspapers with the suppressed energy of a woman who would prefer to be wielding her scissors on much meatier targets. Strait captures both the expansiveness of a young man freed to breath sea air and the bemusement of a stranger plunged into the intimate maelstrom of a family’s squabbles. And Emily Mortimer, as Molly, Vinnie’s acting class partner, shimmers with a smart-talking sophistication that never quite hides her fragility.
Still, Miller stands out, even following a familiar arc. Initially a familiar enough teenager determined to provoke his family out of their sniping triviality, Vinnie Jr. discovers the wonder of women who appreciate his appreciation of their Brobdingnagian charms. When Vinnie Jr. searches the internet for sites devoted to the glorification of Botero-esque womanhood and laconically pays with his mother’s purloined credit card, the scene captures that transition from family baby to adventuring youth more eloquently than any dialogue could. The mother-son relationship is complicated, of course, a common point the film makes compellingly. Not only does Miller physically resemble Margulies; he also plays Vinnie as Margulies has played so many of her signature roles, calm and contemplative, lips slightly parted.
All family members benefit from Raymond de Felitta’s tight framing and mobile camerawork, accentuating his script’s verbal energy. As this Italian American family raises colossal glasses of dark red wine, they’re squeezed around an old-fashioned dining set that has definitely seen much better days. When Vinnie Jr. asks his sister if her breasts are growing larger, his comment appears to ricochet around the table. On the heels of Joyce’s instant indignation, first Tony, and then Vinnie, cast surreptitious glances her way. The family gathering collapses into an array of half-cleared plates and disordered chairs.
At other times the film’s editing descends into bathos. Without the anchors of Molly’s rueful wisdom and Tony’s open-mouthed bemusement, the torrent of revelation at the denouement would have devolved into third-rate opera. And the final scene is just plain mushy, bringing together family of blood and family of choice in a feel-good agape that denies the previous prickly realism. But such missteps are rare enough that the strongest memories of the film are its repeated scenes of tenderness. When Molly leans on the jetty of the down-at-heel City Island yacht club, confessing to Vinnie that everything he knows of her is a sham, the gentleness with which he draws her into his arms acknowledges both the complexities of love, and the eternal absence of easy answers.
At its best, City Island celebrates the inherent goodness of individuals who are not conventionally successful or sophisticated, but who know how to look after each other. There’s nothing naïve about them. They know that daily life takes work, that the pain of loss never heals completely. And they know that families are sometimes as divided by love and duty as they are united.