City Island

Just off the Bronx, in Long Island Sound, is a spit of land called City Island. It’s an obscure place, even to New Yorkers, which probably explains how it retains the look of a quaint New England fishing village despite being part of the biggest city in America.

The movie called “City Island” is set there, though it could have been called anything and set anywhere. Written and directed by Raymond De Felitta, it’s a merry comedy about one of those quarrelsome Italian-American families where everybody fights a lot but ultimately loves one another. In real life, I find relationships with loud, argumentative people exhausting. In the movies, though, they can be a lot of fun to watch.

There are four people in the Rizzo family, each with a handful of secrets ranging from deep and dark to shallow and merely opaque. The patriarch, Vince (Andy Garcia), is a prison guard who’s been taking acting classes in the hopes of becoming a movie star; he keeps it hidden from his wife, Joyce (Julianna Margulies), because he assumes she’d think it was a waste of time. Their teenage son, Vinnie (Ezra Miller), is developing a fetish for morbidly obese women, including the one across the street. His older sister, Vivian (Dominik Garcia-Lorido), supposedly away at college, is working part-time as a stripper. Everyone is a smoker, and everyone hides it from everyone else. Vince will be poking his head through the upstairs bathroom’s skylight to catch a few puffs while his son is 30 feet away doing the same thing on the balcony, each out of the other’s view.

Into this household comes Tony (Steven Strait), a young ex-con in need of a fresh start, whom Vince invites to stay in the unfinished boathouse in exchange for helping Vince finish it. In the grand tradition of TV sitcoms since time immemorial (OK, just since the ’50s), Vince doesn’t tell Joyce he’s bringing the guy home, and won’t tell her why after he does. In fact, the specter of sitcoms is raised near the end, too — I’m thinking “Three’s Company,” specifically — when the film’s comedically dizzying climax involves multiple misinterpretations and wrong impressions, with all the secrets coming out at once.

This is all nicely choreographed by De Felitta (who also made the similar “Two Family House”), though it does require some characters to behave more dumbly than is plausible. For example, Vince embarks on a friendship with a fellow acting student (Emily Mortimer) that could very reasonably be misconstrued by Joyce as an affair. It involves secrecy, mysterious phone calls, and alibis. Yet when Joyce accuses him, Vince is completely surprised, having never considered that his furtive behavior might arouse suspicion. Even by the usual standards of comedy, which assert that husbands are always clueless about their wives’ feelings, this is pretty obtuse.

But hey, whaddaya want? Underneath the intentionally convoluted plot, this is a pretty simple comedy with simple goals: make us laugh, make us leave the theater smiling. The cast members (including Alan Arkin as Vince’s acting coach) are energetic and funny, the tempo upbeat, the dialogue sparkling. See it with someone you love who drives you crazy.

B (1 hr., 45 min.; PG-13, some harsh profanity, some sexual dialogue, partial nudity.)