City Island | Can There Be Too Much Quirk in a Comedy?

An eccentric Bronx family with secrets keeps the comedy flowing in City Island. (Lorey Sebastian, ©Fox Searchlight Pictures)

City Island is a fictional story set in the real-life marine village of City Island in Bronx, New York. With a population of 4300, just one express bus ride away from Manhattan, its salt-of-the-earth natives pride themselves as the bona fide residents, as distinguished from the art dealers, yacht owners, and other newcomer wannabes. But we digress.

Recipient of the Audience Favorite Award at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival, City Island is a seriously quirky comedy about the Rizzos, a dysfunctional working-class family brimming with secrets that are all revealed with the arrival of an unlikely houseguest. And without spoiling the story, we can expose most of their classified information right up front, which is just what the movie does.

Vince Rizzo (Andy Garcia) is a prison guard by day who secretly attends acting class by night. His daughter (Dominik Garcia-Lorido, daughter of Andy Garcia) is a college student by day and a stripper by night. Vince’s teenage son (Ezra Miller) has a fetish for extra large women, day or night. His wife Joyce (Julianna Margulies) is a frustrated secretary who thinks Vince is having an affair and whose anxiety keeps the family tension peaked. And then there’s Tony (Steven Strait), the unusual houseguest with a secret even he doesn’t know.

City Island entertains with a similar flavor to the 1987 Oscar-winning Moonstruck. Andy Garcia and Julianna Margulies carry their home-grown roles and dialects. And the casting of Alan Arkin as the acting teacher and Emily Mortimer as Vince’s classmate confidante add a mixed dimension.

But the story prompts the critical question, “How much quirk is permitted in a Hollywood feature film?” When it comes to comedy, “odd” makes a better seasoning than an entrée, unless you’re Lucille Ball or Woody Allen. And here, the Rizzo family baggage starts out plausible but balloons into excess, leading us into oddity overload without a steady anchor. On the other hand, after all the “crazy” subsides, the film has something to teach us about the nature of honesty. It shows us how truth is the shortest distance between two points. And how the process of hiding the truth has the opposite effect, creating complication, alienation, and shame. And sometimes a screwball comedy.  B-

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