Elevate Difference

City Island

The film City Island is no more about City Island of the Bronx than Chinatown is about the Chinatown of Los Angeles. Let me be clear. City Island clangs loudly around in the china shop of classical drama allusions, the acting world, Italian American stereotypes, blue collar romanticism, more than one film homage, the gung-ho desire to leave its audience feeling all is well, what Kenneth Burke considered the role of comedy, and a huge helping of "New York, New York." Unemployment, the erosion of blue collar jobs, and the gentrification of New York’s waterfront communities like Red Hook, Greenpoint, and Hoboken—of which City Island itself could be emblematic—do not appear in this movie.

The juxtaposition of the Manhattan skyline and the "authentic" working class neighborhood evokes cinema history (On the Waterfront, Manhattan), not present-day urban reality. Manhattan remains the dream. Indeed, we get the money shots, and the view from Roosevelt Island is definitely a refreshing change from the Brooklyn Promenade. City Island is more about metaphor than it is the challenged metropolis.

The movie is about Vince Rizzo (played by Andy Garcia, who is a producer of the film) and his secret dream of becoming an actor, which he keeps from his wife and two children. He also has another secret: before his marriage he fathered a son, whose mother he abandoned before the boy was born. In the course of Vince’s job as a corrections officer, he realizes a prisoner, who cannot be paroled because there is no family member to release him to, is his son (Steven Strait). Vince’s acting lessons, which he hides with the excuse that he is playing poker, have convinced his wife (Julianna Margulies) that he is having an affair, particularly since their relationship has degenerated into loud domestic bickering. Misunderstandings, inappropriate pairings, and revelations ensue, with a happier ending than any character or viewer has a right to expect.

Yet, there is grist for the feminist mill in this lighthearted paean one of New York's ethnic enclaves: family über alles, an off-kilter salute to the beauty of big women, and a couple of convenient kick-the-woman-to-the-curb plot contrivances. The secrets and white lies the plot makes much of are all secrets kept from the family by individual members of it, not family secrets kept from all but the most affected member, which are, in my experience, the most troubling ones. The dreams deferred are all individual dreams—college is the big one for both father Vince and adult daughter (Dominik Garcia-Lorido, who is Garcia’s daughter in real life). The capacious family accepts not only the convicted felon love child, but also the teenage son’s fat lady fetish, indulged by the very generous next-door neighbor (Carrie Baker Reynolds), a professional big, beautiful woman with a commercial website. For me this smacked of tokenism to make up for the pole dancing of Rizzo's daughter and the excessive beefcake of Steven Strait's character.

Feminists might cringe at how conveniently the very bad mother myth—“a drunkard and a whore,” says her own son—is used to justify Rizzo’s youthful conduct. I was more disturbed by the dispatch with which the delightful Emily Mortimer was whisked out of the picture, essentially, for putting her own dream ahead of maternal responsibilities. She should be happy for helping the male lead realize his, an outcome that is itself one hundred percent “dollar and a dream” lottery culture.

That said, director-and-writer Raymond De Felitta has crafted an intricate, allusive, and subtle script into a funny, enjoyable movie that most feminists can finish without experiencing too much discomfort.

Written by: Frances Chapman, March 18th 2010