'City' saves its good parts for the actors

Posted: March 25, 2010

Fans describe "City Island" as a combination of "Little Miss Sunshine" and "Moonstruck," which is either good, or a terrifying Frankenstein's monster movie mash-up.

Depends on your taste. I would say that if you have a distaste for indie comedies about quirky families that co-star Alan Arkin, think twice.

It's true that "City Island," starring Andy Garcia as patriarch of a colorfully dysfunctional blue-collar New York family, does seem to have been assembled from spare parts of other movies.

One thread has Vince (Garcia) tentatively reconnecting with a grown child from a premarriage relationship. He brings the rough-edged fellow home as a boarder/handyman, leading to something that feels like a variation on "Down and Out in Beverly Hills."

But just as often, "City Island" also cuts its own path. Vince, contrary to indie-movie formula, is not a deluded failure.

He's a decent guy, and while he doesn't understand his wife (Julianna Margulies) and kids, he genuinely loves them. And his midlife restlessness takes a unique form - he wants to be an actor.

Vince is ashamed of this ambition, so he studies in his spare time and pretends to be playing poker when he's downtown attending acting class, taught by Arkin.

Here he meets another student (Emily Mortimer) and they strike up a friendship - he can speak to her in ways he cannot speak to his wife, and she becomes his confidante.

This does not go where you think it might, a credit to the writer-director Ray De Felitta, who generally keeps the movie fresh and unpredictable, no matter how familiar the movie initially seems.

Its best stuff isn't about Vince's family, but the family of actors. Vince screws up the courage to audition for a Martin Scorsese film, and there's a prolonged sequence that shows the desperation and melancholy of that process. One nice shot shows Vince watching his mentor walking away from the audition, rejected and deflated.

And Garcia's audition sequence is a nice piece of acting - he's able to show us how his character, in an instant, grows from incompetent newcomer to promising novice.

Resolution of family matters is not as rewarding. De Felitta works a little too hard to dream up quirks for Vince's clan, like a teen with a fat fetish who feeds doughnuts to prospective girlfriends. The movie is already too busy, and these are empty calories.

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