Publicists are always heralding movies as the Little Film That Could. Raymond De Felitta's City Island is the rare LFTC that's also good. True, it's slightly noisy and contrived, but so is a good episode of The Honeymooners. There is a generosity of spirit here that elevates the film out of the sitcom realm; it's in favor of the sins of the flesh in a way that makes it closer to Almodovar than TV network whimsy.
For a setting, De Felitta (Two Family House) found a fresh enclave of New York, a piece of the Bronx reached by a two-lane bridge. Apparently, once upon a time City Island was a fishing village in Long Island Sound. The premise is that Vince Rizzo (Andy Garcia) is living in the modest riverfront home his grandfather built.
Vince is a guard at a state prison that's neither a country club nor a hell-hole, but a place just frightening enough to keep him tense and watchful. This guard guards his own secrets. One day on the job, Vince encounters his natural son, Tony (Steven Strait), whom he fathered before he was married. Tony is behind bars for a petty crime. In a burst of generosity (or plot contrivance), Vince decides to let the bitter twenty-something Tony serve his month-long parole at his house, to do some minor construction work on a shed. Naturally, Vince doesn't inform his lynx-eyed wife, Joyce (Julianna Margulies), about the young man's true parentage.
But Vince has another secret that he's hiding from his wife: under the guise of going out to play cards with his pals, Vince has been heading to Manhattan to take acting classes. And the prison guard is starting up a good friendship with his acting partner (a very tender Emily Mortimer).
The weight of this movie—amiable and none too deep—is just right for Garcia now that he's softer and quieter. And City Island doesn't overstate Vince's talent. He's got what it takes to be a character actor once he finds himself underneath the borrowed Brando mannerisms, though you can tell Garcia is holding back, playing Vince as an actor who is good enough, but not quite as good as he (Garcia) is.
De Felitta keeps the story rolling by cutting to the subsidiary characters, including a few scenes by that savior of the indie movie Alan Arkin as Vince's acting teacher. Margulies' Joyce, sure that her husband is telling despicable lies, gets interested watching the shirtless Tony working in the backyard, and the movie is on her side when she finally does pounce. The story of the daughter, Vivian (Dominik Garcia-Lorido), seems to be there just to provide a spot of skin and a symmetrical surface of family falsehoods.
Wiseass son Vince Jr. (Ezra Miller) has a secret of his own: he's a chubby chaser with a crush on the 400-pound woman next door. If there's such a thing as a fetish that offends no one, this might be it. Miller plays the part so well he's almost a comic discovery. Stealing mom's credit card to stare at a BBW website, he makes an unveiling-of-the-Holy-Grail face as the pictures unfold. (The password is "Botero.")
It's hard to tell whether it's the snazz of a cocky young actor or something that will last longer, but Miller has everything that Robert Downey Jr. had when making films like Back to School and Johnny B. Goode. Time will tell. It's appropriate that Miller would make this kind of impression in a film like City Island. The film isn't necessarily all that wise about the ways of families, but it is wise about the ways of acting, celebrating the actor's life and the actor's luck.
'City Island' opens on Friday, April 30, at the Rialto Cinemas Lakeside. 551 Summerfield Road, Santa Rosa. 707.525.4840.