FANTASTIC BEASTS Box Office Alternative: CITY ISLAND Redefines the Family Comedy

Potter fans rejoice this week as the endlessly magical and appealing world of J.K. Rowling is revisited with the much-anticipated release of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the first entry in the Harry Potter spin-off series. The film seems primed to win over audiences with its dazzling assortment of effects and impressive cast, which includes the likes of Eddie Redmayne, Colin Farrell and Ezra Miller.

I quite appreciate the way Miller has emerged as one of the most popular and acclaimed young actors working today. Every role he takes on, whether it be in heavy drama, or lighter material, shows him taking over the proceedings in ways which truly heighten the story. It’s a trait which not many actors can pull off, and for me, was first witnessed through his work in the charming indie comedy City Island.

Written and directed by Raymond De Felitta, City Island stars Andy Garcia as Vince Rizzo, a corrections officer from the titular New York city who discovers that the soon-to-be released Tony (Steven Strait) is his long-lost son, although Tony doesn’t know this. But Vince has another secret; he secretly wants to be an actor and has kept the fact that he’s been taking acting classes from his wife Joyce (Julianna Margulies), while she’s keeping the fact that she’s resumed her smoking habit from her husband. On the other side, their college-age daughter Vivian (Dominik Garcia-Lorido) has lost her scholarship and has taken on a job as a stripper to make the next semester’s tuition, while teenaged Vince Jr. (Miller) has been nurturing a fetish as a feeder through online browsing and an obsession with a heavy set girl in his class. When Vince decides to bring Tony home, everyone’s secrets come to a head and all hell, naturally, breaks loose.

City Island is a film about secrets. More specifically, City Island is a film about the kind of secrets a family keeps from each other. There may be some who find this aspect of the film to be a turn-off, but in actuality, the secrets provide the heart and soul of the film. The sole reason the film works as well as it does is because everyone in it is lying to each other. It also through the elements of secrets where the film’s main comedy comes from. Sure, it’s good fun to watch Vince suggest to Joyce that she make dinner a little extra special that night since Vivian is visiting on her “spring break.” “You want… balloons, or something,” asks a confused and annoyed Joyce. But such moments aren’t nearly as fun as watching Vince try and study his acting techniques in the bathroom in the morning as Joyce shouts that she needs to take a shower or Vince Jr. steal his mother’s credit card to gain access to an online site featuring heavy-set woman (which is made all the more funnier later when after acting out, Joyce commands him to go to his room, which he does so happily).

Secrets and lies aside, City Island displays a great amount of true pathos which is played out organically and thankfully manages to avoid the saccharine at every turn. It doesn’t take a great amount of analysis to realize that despite the differing nature of a what each family member has decided to keep hidden, each one stems from the same place. None of them want to disappoint each other. The lies differ and range from sexuality to academia, but they all contain a deep fear regarding disappointment as the main motivator for keeping them hidden. The fact that none of the Rizzo’s want to disappoint one another with what they’ve chosen to keep hidden from each other speaks to the strength of the familial bond they share. Yes, as a family, they should have enough faith in each other to trust one another with what they are keeping contained. At the same time however, it’s somewhat touching to discover that they would rather have guilt eat away at them than to feel they’ve let down the people they love most.

There isn’t a single member of the cast that doesn’t shine thanks to the material, which gives them prime characters to work with. Garcia has never been this fun and free as an actor. Watching him play Vince as a man hopelessly trying to balance being the loving family man and pursue his longstanding acting ambitions leads to some great scenes and some of the best moments of the actor’s career. Likewise, Margulies enjoys the best film role she’s ever had. Her Joyce is shown to be the typical Italian wife and mother complete with ready-made shouting matches, but the actress also inserts a longing and a sensitivity to her that instantly makes her endearing. Garcia-Lorido (Garcia’s real-life daughter) does her father proud by making Vivian a determined young woman whose choices she owns and Miller provides nothing but sharp humor as his attempt to deal with being part of the Rizzo clan. Strait’s role may be the least colorful of the bunch, but he brings the right kind of outsider quality to Tony, while Alan Arkin and Emily Mortimer, as Vince’s acting teacher and classmate respectively, add more fun to the film.

Although City Island won a handful of prizes from the various festivals it screened at, the same success did not carry over when the film was released into theaters in the spring of 2010. The film received a great amount of critical praise from the media, who lauded both the film’s cast and script, but audience interest proved elusive as the film failed to be the kind of breakout indie many felt it should have been.

Family comedies are so hard to get right. This is mainly because it’s so incredibly hard to capture the dynamics of familial relationships and infuse laughter into them. The laughs need to be honest and genuine, they need to avoid the likes of pratfalls and fart jokes and, most importantly, they need to speak to the bond that holds a family together. City Island manages this by offering up a family with secrets to spare, whose love not only exists because of the secrets, but continues in spite of them.

Originally published at on November 20, 2016.

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