By Roger Crane
In the world of jazz, a “riff” is a repeated series of improvised notes, chord progressions or musical patterns. Since City Island’s screenwriter/director, Raymond de Felitta, is also a noted and practicing jazz pianist, it make sense that this movie feels like a jazz riff.
City Island introduces us to the Rizzos, a boisterous Italian-American family of four living in the tradition-steeped seaside spit of The Bronx called City Island. The Rizzos are a dysfunctional family who don’t talk to each other much and, when they do, the neighbors undoubtedly hear every word. But we understand…they shout because they are, well, Italian and because they care. Vince Rizzo (Andy Garcia) is a New York City prison guard (he prefers the term “corrections officer”). His wife is the sexy, frisky, high profile Joyce (Julianna Margulies). Their oldest child, Vivian, is played by Garcia’s real-life daughter, Dominik Garcia-Lorido. Their teen son, sarcastic Vinnie, is portrayed by Ezra Miller.
The Rizzos harbor secrets. Vince tells Joyce that he’s out playing poker when he’s really taking acting classes in Manhattan. Joyce smokes cigarettes on the sly and nurses a grudge about the extramarital affair she’s sure Vince is having. Vivian dances in a strip club to earn tuition money and Vinnie spies on an obese neighbor, since his “thing” is a yen for lavishly overweight women.
When Vince discovers that an inmate at his prison is his long-lost, love-child Tony (Steven Strait), he arranges to have him paroled into his custody, without explaining to anyone the reasons why. (He figures he’ll tell Tony and his sure-to-be-furious wife later.) Here is a paraphrased example of the Rizzo conversation that evening as Vince asks Joyce for a favor:
VINCE (smiling): Make something special for dinner. Like for a special occasion. Something nice.
JOYCE (loud, frowning and sarcastic): Want balloons or something?
VINCE (exasperated): Nah, I don’t want balloons or something. I’m just saying something nice.
JOYCE: Don’t I always make something nice?
VINCE: Make it nicer!
JOYCE (shouting): MAKE IT YOURSELF!
With a fifth character added to the Rizzo mix, confusions and complications ensue. Since Joyce thinks Vince is cheating, in retaliation she begins flirting with the 20-year old Tony. Joyce is a good looking woman, so Tony is intrigued but he is more interested in Vivian who, of course, unbeknownst to him, is his half sister. Meanwhile, Vince, at his acting classes, meets fellow student Molly (Emily Mortimer) who talks him into auditioning for a Scorsese movie.
I’ll leave the plot at this point and simply say, there are enough misunderstandings and dysfunction to fill five or more Mitch Leigh movies. But, like a good jazz riff, de Felitta keeps the many moving parts – perhaps a few too many – straight and, most importantly, fun. He understands that a proper farce, like a good jazz solo, needs plenty of tension and friction to work. De Felitta also works well with actors and, like a jazz arranger, gives each plenty of room to roam.
Garcia and Margulies have never been better. Their scenes together are brimming with life, are funny and occasionally harrowing. Garcia, in particular, gives a most satisfying performance and shows a previously untapped flair for comedy, making Vince a likable and vulnerable character. Margulies’ performance is equally stellar and the fierce and funny Joyce bears no resemblance to Alicia Florrick in the popular TV series The Good Wife. Mortimer exhibits an innate glow as fellow acting student Molly; her scenes with Garcia are believable and project much warmth. Alan Arkin, as usual, is great in a small role as Vince’s drama teacher.
No eye-blink edits, no squealing tires or shattering glass, no pumped-up special effects, just a warm story about a dysfunctional but likable family. De Felitta’s City Island is a relief from the usual Hollywood formulaic, by-the-numbers dreck and is highly recommended.
Raymond de Felitta displays the jazz piano side of his talents in a performance with his trio tonight (Sunday May 9) at Vibrato Grill Jazz… in Bel Air. (310) 474-9400.