Everybody’s got their secrets in City Island, something we’re reminded of early and often by writer-director Raymond De Felitta. Beginning the film with a ponderous voiceover in which Andy Garcia asks, “You want to know my secret of secrets?,” De Felitta has his characters continually talk about and around their past indiscretions until, after a movie’s worth of perverse avoidance, they finally get around to revealing them. The result is a plot that’s so frustrating in its contrivances and so dependent on the willfully stupid behavior of its characters that its theme of the importance of familial communication is not so much enacted as reduced to a state of absurdity that we’re nonetheless expected to take (semi)seriously.
The most willfully stupid—or just plain stupid—of the film’s characters is Garcia’s Vince Rizzo, a fiftysomething prison guard and aspiring actor. Hopelessly benighted (at an audition for a role in a Martin Scorsese movie, he attempts an impression of Brando’s Godfather), he’s afraid to tell his wife he’s taking an acting class; when he uses the lying excuse of the more class-appropriate activity of a poker game, his other-half Joyce (Julianna Margulies) naturally thinks he’s having an affair. But that’s far from the film’s only secret. The whole thing’s built around a series of misunderstandings and misassumptions in which the family’s women come off especially badly. Both Vince’s wife (willing adulteress) and daughter (secretly working as a stripper) bear the taint of sexual depravity while the men remain mostly clean. But that’s no surprise since even when we meet a wholly sympathetic woman, Vince’s supportive acting class partner, the quirky Brit Molly (Emily Mortimer), she tells him cheerfully, “Women are emotionally incoherent. It’s their defining characteristic,” De Felitta selling the old line by putting it in the mouth of a supposedly “sophisticated” woman.
But if Joyce’s behaviors seem inconsistent, it’s not without due provocation. In addition to refusing to tell her about his acting class, Vince, having had a prisoner released into his custody, brings him home from jail for a 30-day stay at the Rizzo house. What he doesn’t tell anyone is that the young convict, Tony (Steven Strait), is actually his son from an earlier relationship whom he abandoned when Tony was a kid.
Since Vince insists on keeping mum on all fronts, Joyce is free to pursue her own pleasures, which includes giving into a strong mutual attraction with Tony. But the nearly-consummated affair is eventually halted when her would-be lover has a last-minute attack of conscience, thus magnanimously preventing Joyce from becoming so tainted that the family order can’t be restored at film’s end. Throw in a subplot involving (and celebrating) Vince and Joyce’s stoner teenage son’s fetish for fat women, family scenes that consist of little more than heated rounds of screaming and mutual recrimination, and a horribly anticlimactic round of revelations which neatly negates the obvious hatred everyone in the Rizzo clan feels for each other, and it all adds up to a not-too-amusing portrait of the nuclear family in its seemingly terminal but still apparently redeemable phase.
Only the sultry exchange of looks between Margulies and the perpetually bare-chested Strait generates any measure of excitement, but when their potential affair fizzles, so, irreparably, does the film. At the end of the proceedings, when revelations appear to be forthcoming, Molly surveys the wreckage and, smiling, declares the situation to be “Greek in scope.” This hopeful interjection aside, De Felitta’s stinker is anything but.