Every now and again you see a film that just lingers, like the scent of gardenias or a perfectly satisfying meal. "City Island" is one of those films. If you haven't seen it yet, please do, even if it means driving across town to the one cinema where it's playing. It's a gem of a film. Hard to believe, with a script this good, writer/director Raymond De Felitta had such a hard time getting funding and distribution. Then again, "Slumdog Millionaire" had similar woes, which isn't bad company to be in. Hopefully, with some good ole word of mouth, it will be showing everywhere soon.
Why do I love the film so much? Maybe it's the quirky but real characters. (Brief aside to say that I HATE films where characters are odd for the sake of being odd. "Like, wow... a story about a successful actor who secretly longs to be an accountant! And he's OCD about hygiene! And he rides a Segway everywhere!") Fortunately, "City Island" characters are real, flawed, likeable, and 3D without the need for funny glasses. Like the prison guard dad (played by Andy Garcia) who secretly dreams of being an actor. Or the snarky teenage son (Ezra Miller, who stole every scene he was in) with an unusual and surprisingly endearing fetish. (Didn't know "endearing fetish" could actually exist until now.) Or the character of Tony the ex-con (played with formidable gravitas by Steven Strait, an actor to watch) who ends up being the moral center of the film.
Beyond the characters, there's something about the tone of the story that made me what to stand up and shout, "YES!" "City Island" is a true dramedy, and I say that with utmost respect for my favorite genre of film. De Felitta manages to make a buoyant, deliciously sweet film about some heavy family issues. It's unbelievably hard to walk the comedy/drama tightrope as well as he does. A few other films I love that thrive on that tension include "Parenthood," "Together" (a little Swedish film by Lukas Moodyson), more recent hits like "Juno" and "Little Miss Sunshine" and the film that made me want to make films, Ang Lee's "Eat Drink Man Woman." Bravo to De Felitta for striking that perfect balance between dramatic tension and comedic release, or in other words, thank God he kept it funny.
As for the plot... wow. I'd love to have coffee with De Felitta and ask him where he got his story lines from. They feel so authentic and self assured, I'm sure he has some kind of emotional connection with each one. The father given a second chance to make good with his son. The marriage that might crack in spite of having real love at the core. The parents longing to connect with their kids but not knowing how. The auteur weaves these stories together with the comedic timing and crescendo of a Shakespeare play -- one of the happy ones, that is. De Felitta clearly doesn't have Plot Issues the way I do. I love creating characters and dialogue, love crafting individual scenes... but plodding, I mean plotting that overall story line feels like going for a run in a murky swamp. It's about as enjoyable as natural childbirth (and yes, I've done it so I know EXACTLY how it feels.) De Felitta makes storytelling seem effortless, and reminds me why I'm a screenwriter.
I left the theater wishing I could have "City Island" for dinner. It really was that good.