City Island: What a Tangled Web We Weave

Julianna Marguiles and Andy Garcia, in City Island

On March 5, I saw Andy Garcia at the Independent Spirit Awards ceremony and approached his table to congratulate him on City Island, the delightful comedy scheduled to open today. The nattily dressed Garcia, who portrays City  Island’s lead character, Vince Rizzo, was appreciative and introduced me to his onscreen and off-screen daughter Dominik Garcia-Lorido, who plays Vivian Rizzo. To tell you the truth, I didn’t recognize Dominik with her clothes on – which should suggest what her character’s secret is in this family farce about private lives, where nobody is exactly what they appear to be.

City Island reminds me of that old CBS game show I’ve Got a Secret, co-hosted by, among others, Steve Allen. Every major character in City Island has a secret, but in keeping with my anti-plot spoiler philosophy I won’t spill the beans by revealing them here. Let’s start with Garcia’s Vince, a prison guard who at first appears to be a proletarian son of the working class. But he rankles at the term “prison guard,” opting instead for a more highfaluting title, indicating that beneath his blue collar persona lies another aspiration. Early in the movie this is wittily disclosed by Vince’s choice of reading matter, which he conceals from his wife Joyce (Julianna Margolies).

She is suspicious of her husband’s nocturnal absences at a weekly “poker game,” suspecting that Vince is actual having an affair. It’s symptomatic of role playing and hiding our true inner selves that Vinnie’s deceptions lead Joyce to this troubling conclusion, rather than revealing his true self and dreams to the woman Vince shares his life with. Of course, in turn about fair play, Joyce, too, has a secret.

Not surprisingly, both of their children – having learned well from mom and dad – have their own share of secrets in this Italian-American family. Daughter Vivian is supposedly a hard studying student, whose university education will enable her to rise above the proletarian milieu of New York’s City Island. The approximately 13-year-old Vinnie Jr. (Ezra Miller) has a weird fetish.

Andy Garcia

Molly (portrayed with relish by British actress Emily Mortimer) is full of pretences, as she participates in and enables Vince’s weekly nighttime charade, while trying to completely reinvent her hausfrau self. Joining this ensemble cast in a small role is Alan Arkin – a personal favorite since his 1968 heart stealing lead role in the unforgettable The Heart is a Lonely Hunter – as the aptly named Michael Malakov, who is, shall we say, the leader of that weekly evening “poker game.” Malakov, too, yearns to be something other than he is. As Woody Allen once joked: “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. And those who can’t teach, teach gym.”

But of all the characters surrounded by what Mike Leigh called Secrets and Lies in his peerless 1996 family drama, Tony Nardella (Steven Strait) takes the cake. When we first see him Tony is an inmate at the correctional facility where Vince works. For some mysterious reason Vince arranges Tony’s release and takes him back to his City Island home to live, ostensibly in order to rebuild the Rizzos’ boat shed, and to embark on a new life on the straight and narrow. However, the smalltime criminal becomes ensnared in the tangled web of deceptions woven by the Rizzo family.

In an interesting, amusing commentary on the necessity of being true to one’s inner self and dreams, the one time Vince’s proletarian persona could really come in handy, he rather foolishly tries to alter his blue collar appearance by garbing himself in such a way that this genuinely working class is asked if he’s just come from a funeral.

Inevitably, as an episode of the Seinfeld sitcom put it, worlds collide when all of the secret lives and lies unravel. All this has the elements of Greek tragedy; Aeschylus would have had a field day with this material. But screenwriter/director Raymond De Filitta has shrewdly opted instead for a Moliere-like farcical, comedy of manners approach. Some may feel that City Island’s intricate plot and its unfolding onscreen is contrived and over the top. But this critic disagrees and fully enjoyed the Sir Walter Scott-like tangled web the characters weave as they practiced to deceive, and how they awkwardly stumble towards the truth(s) that set them free.

Dominik Garcia-Lorido

I do, however, have one minor bone to pick with De Filitta and his production. As a “Native” New Yorker, I sometimes glimpsed City Island from afar, but never actually took a ferry or whatever to this isle enclave at the edge of metropolis. I would have preferred more cinematic and script exposition about the actual City Island, where most of the action is set. That place still remains a mysterious island to be, so I guess the next time this wayward son returns to the “mother country” I’ll just have to hop a boat and cruise out to City Island to check it out for myself – and dine at an oyster bar.

But this is a mere quibble. I highly recommend the filmic City Island, a delightful family comedy with a superb ensemble cast with an uplifting message. More than any other movie in recent memory it reminded me of William Shakespeare’s wise words ironically uttered by the foolish Polonius in Hamlet: “This above all else, to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” Remaining true to his class origins leads Vince to the fulfillment of his dreams.

There is a droll Martin Scorsese tie-in, but the similarly named City Island is the polar opposite of the supposedly terrifying Shutter Island. And by the way, City Island is rated “must-see” for fans of Marlon Brando, who played the uber-Italian in 1972’s The Godfather . Brando aficionados will get Diner’s smile of the day from this thoroughly enjoyable family farce.

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell was named after legendary CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow. Rampell is a L.A.-based film critic/historian and author. Michael Moore is on the cover of Rampell’s book Progressive Hollywood, A People’s Film History of the United States.


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