Raymond de Felitta’s films have concerned themselves with families that form small enclaves of eccentricity in a sea of homey conservatism. Desperately trying to conform to neighborhood norms, his characters hide their true selves until, through determination or happenstance, their otherness breaks through. In “City Island,” set in the titular New York harbor community, that breakthrough explodes in fireworks of farce, spearheaded by Andy Garcia’s virtuoso perf as a prison guard with a loud, abrasive, secret-ridden brood. Another expertly written joyride through the confines of narrowminded provincialism to cleansing self-awareness from de Felitta, this Tribeca audience award-winner could go mainstream.
The first signs of danger to the family’s precarious equilibrium arrive when jail guard Vince (Garcia) recognizes just-transferred inmate Tony Nardella (a hunky Steven Strait) as the son he sired and abandoned long before his marriage. Vince decides to parole Tony into his custody, and brings him home without telling his family of the connection.
Vince is already hiding another secret: He’s enrolled in a Manhattan acting workshop, his transparent alibi of going to a poker game leading wife Joyce (a magnificently temperamental Julianna Margulies) to suspect infidelity. Meanwhile, Vince’s daughter Vivian (Dominik Garcio-Lorido) is dancing in a strip joint to pay her college tuition, while his younger son Vinnie (Ezra Miller, in a pitch-perfect turn) harbors a sexual kink — surfing the Internet in search of overweight women.
To outsider Tony, the only real secret is why the family members even bother concealing their problems and passions — particularly since they literally cry out from the rooftop, where Vince puffs away at the cigarettes he supposedly gave up.
For Vince, unhappy in his prison job but convinced of his intellectual limitations, acting represents a dream vocation, fueled by his affection for Marlon Brando films. Almost touchingly clueless, he doesn’t even realize the long, hilarious tirade against Method acting, delivered in high style by his embittered drama teacher (Alan Arkin), is leveled against idol Brando. Paired for a thesping exercise with sophisticated Brit Molly (Emily Mortimer), he confides his ambitions while she urges the reluctant Vince to try out for a Martin Scorsese film.
Vince’s audition, complete with an incredibly bad, mouth-stretching Brando imitation, is a comic mini-masterpiece, revealing hitherto unplumbed dese-dem-and-dose depths in the usually urbane Garcia. His domestic scenes with a volatile, earthy Margulies (earlier paired with Garcia in “The Man From Elysian Fields”) fairly sizzle with sexual frustration and blindsided affection.
For de Felitta, comedy is never cruel, and following one’s personal bents, however unorthodox, is always empowering. And if the staging of the pic’s hysterical, campily melodramatic dockside finale registers as overly schematic, with every skeleton in the closet systematically divulged, it may be because his characters cling so tenaciously to their humanity.
Through the lens of cinematographer Vanja Cernjul, “City Island” does for the small off-urban district what de Felitta’s “Two Family House” did for Staten Island, mapping it indelibly on the cinematic atlas. The locale often figured in earlier movies, but always subbing for someplace else.