What holds family together? Fidelity? Trust? Friendship? Responsibility? Love? In writer/director Raymond De Felitta’s City Island the answer is lies. De Filitta’s comedy is about a family living in the isolated Bronx community of City Island who hide their secret loves and desires from each other as a way of preserving the status quo in family life. Father Vince Rizzo (Andy Garcia) is a prison guard who hides a passion for acting. Son Vince Jr. (Ezra Miller) looks at obese pornography; and daughter Vivian Rizzo (Dominik Garcia-Lorido) got kicked out of college and is working at a strip club to earn her way back into college so her parents don’t find out. It would all seem preposterous if you weren’t laughing hysterically a few minutes into the film. De Felitta has hit on something real here – his portrait of the American family works as a comedy of cover-ups. They all smoke, but tell each other they have quit.
The big whooping fib at the center of City Island’s story is Vince Rizzo’s discovery of his lost son, Tony Nardella (Steven Strait), who Vince abandoned along with Tony’s mother when he was a young man. Vince has never told his wife about the relationship or the son, but when Tony winds up in Vince’s prison, he decides he needs to make things right. Vince arranges for Tony to go on supervised probation, and Vince brings him home to his house on City Island. It sounds like a bad sitcom premise. Tony is a beefy, serious, good-natured twenty-something (who happened to lift cars to earn cash), and he begins working shirtless about the house and inadvertently stumbling upon the familial secrets: Vince’s acting class, Joyce’s smoking habit and hidden desires for Tony, Vince’s porn, and eventually Vivian’s stripping. Tony has never had a stable family life, but watching the Rizzo’s, he wonders if that was a good thing.
Everything finally come to a head when Vince’s friend from acting class, Molly (Emily Mortimer) convinces him to go to an audition for a Martin Scorsese movie, and Vince gets a call back. Vince tries to tell his wife the good news, but she mistakes Molly as Vince’s mistress (having already suspected his infidelity because of the lies he tells to sneak off to his acting class). The final scene explodes like the climax in a Greek comedy, with everyone’s secrets thrown out in the open. Joyce and Vince are screaming in the street, Tony is handcuffed to a pole, Vivian is standing in her stripper negligee, and Vince is watching from the balcony of his obese neighbor who moonlights as an internet porn star. Vince discovers Joyce has made a pass on Tony. Vivian tells everyone Tony lifted the family car, but Tony then makes Vivian reveal that she works as a stripper. And Vince finally finds the courage to tell the truth about his acting class and his son.
City Island is bombastic and over-the-top, part of that coming from the fact that this is “Da Bronx.” The blue-color New York attitude is ramped-up and slightly overplayed, but to good comedic effect (think Big Fat Greek Wedding). The script is also quite good; each character is fleshed-out enough so that we glimpse their heart – their pathos rings true. And like all good comedy, City Island isn’t all about laughing. The Rizzo’s are pitiful, sad, and frustrated. We wonder during the film just what keeps them from being honest. What are they protecting, what idea of normalcy are they trying to preserve? When it all blows up and the characters’ tears begin to flow, our laughter seems there to sooth. After all, it is hard to shake the feeling that the Rizzo’s look uncomfortably like our own families.