We Bought a Zoo
A widowed father played by Matt Damon moves to the South Californian country and purchases a zoo with his family
On Film4: 31 Aug 6:25PM
In Raymond De Felitta's family dramedy, the Rizzos are liberated from their own secrets and lies by the arrival of an ex-con
These days, the presence of Alan Arkin in any film about family dysfunction will inevitably evoke the Oscar-winning indie Little Miss Sunshine (2006) - and from the producers' point of view, hopefully will also take on a little of that movie's magic. City Island certainly ticks these boxes - Arkin is there playing dispirited drama teacher Michael Malakov, and there is dysfunction aplenty.
The truth is, though, that this dramedic tale of an outsider shaking up a family's repressive dynamic has far more in common with Pasolini's Teorema (1968), Mazursky's Down And Out In Beverly Hills (1986) or Miike's Visitor Q (2001) - if little of those film's mordant acuity.
City Island opens with a corrections officer (Andy Garcia) doing a roll check of new inmates, and hesitating oddly when he gets to the name Nardella on his list. "You ask me about my worst secret, my most personal secret, the secret of all my secrets," we hear him say in voice-over. "But first, I'm Vince Rizzo - I wanna begin by telling you where I live." Where he lives is exactly where the film's title suggests, although supposedly only a minority even of actual Gothamites has ever heard of this tiny beach-girt fishing community linked only by a bridge to the rest of the Bronx.
Writer/director Raymond De Felitta puts this overlooked New York location on the cinematic map, fully exploiting its many sights and the unusual views that it affords of the big city beyond. Yet at the same time the place itself never feels particularly essential to the plot - it is more colourful wallpaper than anything structurally integral. If the film had instead been set in, say, Queens, and retitled accordingly, the vista might have been lost, but not a whole lot else.
Then we come to the secrets. Vince has several: he smokes behind the back of his wife Joyce (Julianna Margulies); he prefers his loved ones to think he is out playing poker - or even to suspect that he is having an affair - than to know that he is in fact taking acting classes on the sly in Manhattan; and the convicted carjacker Tony Nardella (Steven Strait) whom Vince has just welcomed into his own home for supervised parole is in fact his unacknowledged son from a relationship that ended before Tony was even born.
With the Rizzos, however, secrets and lies are something of a family tradition. Joyce keeps Vince at a distance to conceal her desire for greater intimacy. Their daughter Vivian (played by Garcia's real-life daughter Dominik Garcia-Lorido) pretends to be a model college student while in fact she has lost her scholarship and is working full-time as a stripper. Meanwhile, sharp-tongued son Vinnie (Ezra Miller) harbours a hidden passion for feeding overweight women.
None of this is in fact a spoiler - for one of the major faults of De Felitta's screenplay is that it spills its characters' secrets far too early, so that for all the delicious sharpness of the film's opening twenty minutes, much that follows (including the climactic revelation scene) merely repeats uneconomically what we have already known for well over an hour.
While all the performances here are a pleasure unto themselves, many sequences are over-extended and over-obvious, like Vince's audition scene which is first played out far too long, and then described all over again in the subsequent scene. The only real surprise comes from Vince's acting class partner Molly (Emily Mortimer), who alone keeps her secret till late in the picture - but the miscast Mortimer makes her character's lie somehow seem more credible than the truth. It is no good thing in a film whose message is that the truth can set you free.
Its revelations come too early, and many of its scenes are too long, but City Island is kept afloat by its unusual location and fine-tuned performances.
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