Thursday, April 1, 2010

"City Island" Review

I don't think competent indie directors are in any short supply; what worries me is the state of "independent" screenwriting. Where are the passion projects? Where are the radically unconventional and anti-commercial controversy-magnets? Narratively and comedically, we can do better than "City Island."

See, the time has long since passed that art house filmmaking was about getting big ideas on the big screen. Maybe as consumers, that business model has lost its value given that weird, offbeat, and counter-mainstream content is readily available on home video or at the push of a button. Now, especially for the little guy, it's all about inking a distribution deal, which means independent films have a few looming successes over their head. If you want to generate studio interest in an independently financed project, buzz films like "Little Miss Sunshine" and "Juno" are exactly who you want to be compared to. The movie businessmen factor those comparisons in heavily when formulating their equation for the bankability of your indie.

For filmmakers, this seems to mean that "Little Miss Sunshine" and the like are to be used as roadmaps in writing their films, with readymade archetypes to be pilfered for maximum profitability. You can't tell me year after year that filmmakers are just burning to tell the story of their quirky, dysfunctional families—It's just an insofar successful business model, and I'm tired of it.

The exact reason I go to the art house is to see filmmakers take risks that Hollywood wouldn't, and when you take that dynamic away, you're left with bland, marginally distinct stories that have little to no reason to be told. What's going on in "City Island" works, to an extent, from a directorial standpoint, a visual standpoint, and a performance standpoint—but from a screenwriting standpoint, you should be able to generate a compelling list of reasons why someone would want to sit through your movie. If "Andy Garcia" and "Alan Arkin" make your top three, your story probably needs work.

"City Island's" story is about as complex as your average half-hour sitcom. The Rizzo family's inability to communicate leads to 'comic' situations and misunderstandings, like Garcia's patriarch keeping the profile of an adulterer so he can take acting classes, his college daughter's soon to be not-so-secret strip gig, or his smart-aleck son's fetish for plus-sized women. Their vices are so pedestrian that I couldn't possibly care how they work them out.

The dialogue isn't any better. It's often considered tacky when the title of a film is spoken aloud, and "City Island" devotes an entire monologue to it—And if even Emily Mortimer can't sell it, you're looking at a rewrite situation. "City Island," she says. "The two words stand in stark contrast to each other," and proceeds to explain exactly how. For God's sake, really? You think I don't naturally comprehend the ironic dichotomy of the title? I hate to be the one to have to tell you this, but it's not clever. It's indulgent and condescending.

But I'm being a little harsh. There's nothing especially wrong with "City Island" other than that it's creatively defunct. If you haven't seen a dozen movies like it, maybe it comes across as charming. For me though, Raymond De Felitta's film feels calculated where it should feel human. The Rizzos don't feel like four real people, they feel like salesmen hawking their artificial lives directly to a studio whose definition of "independent comedy" is as rigid as "horror" or "western."

Thanks but no thanks, I'm not buying.


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