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LOST: Julianna Margulies and Andy Garcia are a couple whose marriage has run aground in 'City Island.'

A Bronx Tale

'City Island' is a charming, lightweight indie about family ties and family lies

By Richard von Busack

PUBLICISTS are always heralding movies as The Little Film That Could. Raymond De Felitta's City Island is the rare little film that could that's also a little film that's good. True, it's also slightly noisy and contrived—but so is a smart episode of The Honeymooners. There is a generosity of spirit here that elevates the film out of the sit-com realm: it's in favor of the sins of the flesh in a way that makes it closer to Almodovar than TV network whimsy.

For a setting, De Felitta (Two Family House) found a visually fresh enclave of New York, a piece of the Bronx reached by a two-lane bridge. Apparently, once upon a time City Island was a fishing village in Long Island Sound. The premise is that Vince (Andy Garcia) is living in the modest riverfront home his grandfather built. It's a small house. The characters have to stick their heads out the windows to get some privacy.

Vince Rizzo is a guard at a state prison—neither a country club nor a hell-hole, a place just frightening enough to keep him tense and watchful. One day on the job, Vince encounters his biological son Tony (Steven Strait), whom he fathered before he was married. Tony is behind bars for a petty crime. In a burst of generosity (or plot contrivance), Vince decides to let the bitter twentysomething Tony serve his month-long parole at his house, doing some minor construction work on a shed. Naturally Vince doesn't inform his scary, lynx-eyed wife Joyce (Julianna Margulies) about the young man's true parentage.

But Vince has a second secret that he's hiding from his wife: under the guise of going out to play cards with his pals, Vince has been heading out to Manhattan to take acting classes. And the prison guard is starting up a good friendship with his new partner (a very tender Emily Mortimer).

Vince is an intelligent, covert role for Garcia. Ever since The Man From Elysian Fields, Garcia strikes one as an actor particularly concerned about the moral force of his work. A much meaner way to put that is that he's been sort of mojo-less in recent years. This intimate friendship gives him a chance to play an illicit lover, of sorts.

De Felitta keeps the story rolling by cutting to the subsidiary characters; this includes a few scenes by that savior of the indie movie, Alan Arkin, as Vince's acting teacher. Margulies's Joyce, sure that her husband is telling despicable lies, gets interested watching the shirtless Tony working in the backyard: the movie is on her side when she finally does pounce. The story of the other daughter, Vivian (Dominik Garcia-Lorido) seems to be there just to provide a little skin, as well as a symmetrical surface of family falsehoods.

Even Vince's wiseass son Vince Jr. (Ezra Miller) has a secret of his own: he's a chubby chaser with a crush on the 400-pound woman next door. If there's such a thing as a fetish that offends no one, this might be it. Miller plays the part so well he's almost a comic discovery: stealing mom's credit card to stare at a BBW website, he makes an unveiling-of-the-holy-grail face as the pictures unfold. (The password is "Botero.") It's hard to tell whether it's the snazz of a cocky young actor or something that will last longer, but Miller has everything that Robert Downey Jr. had back at the age when Downey was making films like Back to School and Johnny B. Goode. So time will tell. It's appropriate that Miller would make this kind of impression in a film like City Island. The film isn't necessarily all that wise about the ways of families, but it is wise about the ways of acting: it celebrates the actor's life and the actor's luck.

CITY ISLAND (PG-13; 100 min.), directed by Raymond De Felitta and starring Andy Garcia, Julianna Margulies, Alan Arkin, Emily Mortimer and Ezra Miller, opens Friday at the Nickelodeon.

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