INTERVIEW: ‘City Island’ Director’s Tribute To Working Class Families is a Sleeper Hit
Amid a spring movie season awash in mega-budgeted, big-studio releases, only one film has consistently shot up the box office charts week after week – rising more than 200 percent last weekend alone. That film is the delightfully funny movie “City Island,” starring and co-produced by Andy Garcia, and as a bonus to conservative film fans tired of seeing intact families with traditional values mocked, it’s a loving tribute to familial togetherness and communication as well.
The amazing thing about “City Island,” however, is the fact that it wasn’t supposed to make waves at all. It was about to be dumped into the home video market with only a minimal theatrical release. But then audiences started responding with wildly hysterical laughter and sincere appreciation for the film’s classic American storytelling, and as a result it has climbed from a four-theater opening weekend all the way up to 269 screens in its sixth weekend last week, with even greater numbers hoped for in the weeks to come.
For writer-director Raymond De Felitta, seeing the film succeed despite its meager beginnings is a dream come true. After all, he had struggled to make two prior films in his career: the 2000 Sundance sensation “Two Family House,” which never registered financially despite being a critical and cult favorite, and 2005’s Paul Reiser-Peter Falk film “The Thing About My Folks,” which didn’t score on either the financial or critical side.
Hollywood is watching De Felitta now, however, as the film’s unusual ability to grow financially each week already drew the attention of the Los Angeles Times, which wondered if “City” might become another once-in-a-blue-moon phenomenon like “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” which overcame a similarly tiny start in theaters to grow into a $240 million domestic smash.
“I think the problem with Hollywood’s portrayal of the working class is that a lot of people who write movies either don’t know the working class, or came from it and forget that they did,” says De Felitta in an exclusive Big Hollywood interview. “Hollywood doesn’t really get it wrong a lot, because they work in broad strokes in general. But these are the Italians in the outer boroughs that I grew up around. So I know how they speak and where they’re from, so for me it’s natural and the easiest thing to write.”
While “City Island” is ultimately a celebration of genuine family values, its comically convoluted plot takes some detours that at first seem to be headed into Hollywood’s typical immoral morass. While Garcia’s corrections officer character sneaks off to mainland Manhattan for acting classes and auditions he’s afraid to tell even his wife about, she speculates he’s having an affair and launches into a risky flirtation with a prisoner who’s finishing his probation period at Garcia’s home and who is actually Garcia’s son from a prior relationship.
Further outrage might seem warranted for the subplot about Garcia’s teenage son, who surfs the Internet for porn sites featuring fat women feeding themselves. Yet every time the film seems to be heading in the wrong direction, De Felitta manages to find an inventive twist that brings the characters back to solid moral ground.
“Comedy is always funnier if it’s dangerous, if it borders on the brink of catastrophe,” says De Felitta. “It’s kind of what’s your taste in movies – a movie about danger where it’s really dangerous, or where it goes a different way? It takes me longer to warm me up to a movie that’s dead serious.”
And as crazy as those plot points may sound, it ultimately is a film you can share with everyone from the teens to grandparents.
“It was important for me to do it in a way that could reach a lot of people. I didn’t want to make an R movie – not because of kids, but because a lot of adults and old people avoid them,” says De Felitta. “A huge part of the movie audience is older people, because that’s what they do with their days. They love to go to movies, but they don’t want to see something that upsets them. Nothing I’m saying in the film is really controversial; it’s just a little weird. If it’s done with the right aplomb, I think it’s fine for anyone.”
That fact was borne out in the film’s test screenings, where indie distributor Anchor Bay found that the response results were “amazingly high.” The result has left both the indie and De Felitta with a good problem to have.
“You can never tell what will have a chance in the world,” De Felitta muses. “It feels like we have something, that people are really responding to it. But then we have to ask can we open in more theaters? Can we afford more ads? We gotta keep feeding the monster.”