Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Tribeca ‘09: City Island

City Island might be part of the borough of the Bronx, but the small fishing community is a world removed from Fort Apache. It is a tightly-knit deeply-rooted community of working-class “clam diggers,” like Vince Rizzo, the protagonist of Raymond de Felitta’s City Island now screening at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Rizzo is a prison guard—sorry, that’s corrections officer—but acting is his secret ambition. He furtively takes drama lessons in the City, telling his judgmental wife Joyce he is playing poker instead. Of course, she incorrectly assumes the faithful Rizzo is having an affair. He does have secrets though, like the son he abandoned in his immature youth before meeting Joyce. Suddenly, Rizzo is forced to confront his past, when Tony Nardella, his long lost son, is transferred to his prison.

Nardella never had much family, but he could certainly use some now. He would qualify for parole if only he had someone to take him into their custody. Panged by conscience but reluctant to reveal the truth, Rizzo takes Nardella home with him, ostensibly to help him with home repair projects. Of course, the Rizzo home is not a particularly stable environment either, with Rizzo sneaking off to auditions, his wife manically suspicious, teen-aged son Vince, Jr. obsessed with his particular internet porn fetish, and daughter Vivian secretly working as a stripper after getting expelled from college.

Island might sound like a quirky indie family drama rife with cutesy pitfalls. However, the film nimbly tap-dances through that minefield. A jazz pianist as well as a director, de Felitta has a great sense of timing, maintaining a crisp pace throughout. In an appropriately representative scene, Rizzo’s drama teacher (in a memorable cameo performance by Alan Arkin) instructs his would-be method actors to avoid pauses in their delivery. Keeping it breezy seems to be de Felitta’s strategy here and by-and-large it works, abetted by a buoyantly diverse soundtrack, including some of the director’s own trio recordings.

Much of the complicated Rizzo family drama works quite well, never getting too adorable or saccharine. While somewhat uneven, Island never tarries too long with a misfiring subplot (like the pursuits of smarmy Vince, Jr.). Andy Garcia ably leads the cast, bringing both a blue-collar credibility and an engaging vulnerability to the confused Rizzo. Though her character is a bit exaggerated, Julianna Margulies is almost unrecognizable, submerging into Joyce’s Bronx-Westchester persona. However, Emily Mortimer packs the film’s greatest emotional punch as Rizzo’s drama class partner, wrestling with her own guilty secrets.

With Island, De Felitta charts a middle course between earnest indie family drama and screwball comedy that is surprisingly effective. It is a pleasingly light, but satisfying film. It screens again on April 29th and May 1st.