Set in the Bronx during an eventful spring break and populated by sexual, dark-haired people, "City Island" could, on the surface, be confused for a "Jersey Shore" sequel.
But the Bronx of "City Island" is a world apart. The film's namesake is the tiny fishing village on the outskirts of the New York borough. Inhabitants are either "mussel-suckers" (new islanders) or "clamdiggers" (longtime natives), a distinction that Vince Rizzo (Andy Garcia) proudly announces in the movie's opening narration.
It may be a very specific locale, but "City Island" is a broad comedy. It's a domestic farce where everyone in the Rizzo household harbors secrets, hiding their smoking — and many other habits — from each other.
Vince is a prison security guard (a "correctional facilities officer," he insists), married to a secretary, Joyce (Julianna Margulies). Both are showing some wear from 20 years of marriage and creeping middle-age regrets.
Their daughter, Vivian (Dominik Garcia-Lorido, Garcia's real-life daughter, too), is home from college on spring break, but has — unbeknownst to her parents — lost her scholarship and taken up stripping to make money. Their son Vinnie, Jr. (Ezra Miller) is a high school teenager in the midst of discovering his sexuality. He's drawn to larger women and has a fetish for feeding them. (You know, normal kid stuff.)
Vince has two dark secrets. One, he fathered a child before he was married that he never helped raise. Making his rounds at the prison, he spots his son Tony (Steven Strait), who has grown into a felon and a hunk, and paroles him to his home.
Vince's more shameful secret is that lowliest sin of all: He wants to be an actor. He discreetly soaks in Stanislavski's "An Actor Prepares" and sneaks out for acting classes while telling his wife he's going to play poker.
Skeletons come out of the closet
Alan Arkin plays his exasperated drama teacher (tired of Brando impressions, he asks his students for "a moratorium on pauses"). Emily Mortimer is his more learned acting partner (she calls him "Vincent," quotes Ogden Nash and tells Vince to call her, but "only on a whim").
New York writer-director Raymond De Felitta ("Two Family House," "The Thing About My Folks") has made the messy, comic interiors of family life a continual theme. In "City Island," he succeeds most in gathering a very entertaining ensemble and eliciting funny melodrama, in particularly from Garcia (who also produced) and Margulies.
Garcia, who long ago emerged as another character named Vincent in "The Godfather, Part III," shows an almost Alec Baldwin-like ability to use his dramatic panache for comic effect. Vince is charmingly clueless, particularly in his quixotic audition for a bit part in a Martin Scorsese film. Margulies seething wife is equally fine.
The set up all begs a little too obviously for indie quirk — it even has the reliably superior Arkin in a supporting role as if proof of "Little Miss Sunshine" ambitions.
But the outer-borough oddities of "City Island" are hard to resist.