Andy Garcia was on the verge of becoming the new Robert DeNiro or Al Pacino in the late 1980s and early 1990s — dark-haired and handsome, volatile yet seductive, equally good as cop or criminal, lover or fighter in films like Internal Affairs, Black Rain, 8 Million Ways to Die, The Untouchables and especially The Godfather Part III, in which he was Oscar-nominated as the hot-headed, violence-prone suitor of Michael Corleone’s (Pacino) daughter.
But somehow, someway, the Cuba-born Garcia’s star faded — maybe too many law-and-order movies, maybe a slight propensity to overact in them in order to stay interested. As he got older (he’s 54 now) and his features thickened and lost their youthfulness, he wound up the patsy — the target — for the A-list stars of caper movie Ocean’s 11.
The good news of City Island, then, is that Garcia has a fine role in it and responds with a strong, likable performance. As a corrections officer who secretly wants to be an actor, he’s by turns charming, humorous, wise, tough and sweet. He displays star magnetism. To get such a part, Garcia co-produced the film.
The bad news is that City Island needs every ounce of Garcia’s considerable skills to (barely) rise above being arch, belabored and (mildly) sexed-up sitcom material. The director/writer (and co-producer) is Raymond De Felitta, a New Yorker who aims to be a poet of its overlooked boroughs. His 2000 Two Family House, set in the world of 1950s-era working-class-Italian Staten Island, was a well-written look at how the community responded to the arrival of an unwed Irish mother whose baby is black.
City Island is set in an unusual corner of modern-day Bronx — a seaport on the Long Island Sound that's a bit of touristy New England fishing village in the middle of the metropolis. As the film sees it, the population there is divided between families who have been residents for generations and newcomers. Vince Rizzo (Garcia) belongs to the former group — he’s a working-class family guy stuck with argumentative loud-mouthed wife Joyce (Julianna Margulies), who seems to want to look younger and hotter than her college-age daughter Vivian (Dominik Garcia-Lorido), who's moonlighting as a stripper.
At prison, Vince discovers that his long-lost son from an early affair, longhaired and hunky Tony (Steven Strait), is in jail on car theft and qualifies for probation. So Vince offers to take him home, although he tells neither Tony nor his family exactly why.
Right off the bat, the premise strikes one as dodgy. So we start with questions about buying into the story. But overlooking that, one immediately notices that the arguing between Vince and Joyce transcends typical dinner-table jibes and seems really mean-spirited, even vicious. And the smug, sexually oriented comments of their teen son Vince Jr. (sleepy-eyed Ezra Miller) come off as outside the pale of naturalism. (Almost everything about Miller’s character, especially his obsession with a fat woman, seems strained and stolen from a bad Fox-TV sitcom.)
The broad and inauthentic writing forces Margulies into a performance that matches. Visions of Down and Out in Beverly Hills flicker in her attraction to Tony, but City Island is too chaste to really go there — and Strait’s straight-laced performance doesn’t make us want it to.
Amid it all, Garcia underplays his scenes and keeps a glint in his eye and a paternal smile on his face, never letting Vince’s exasperation get the better of him as an actor. The family scenes do have some funny moments, where the writing sparkles, as when he sends Vince Jr. to his room. The boy retorts, “This is not a 1950s family. It’s not real punishment. My room has everything I need.”
In the middle of all this is a subplot I suspect attracted Garcia to the movie in the first place. Vince harbors a dream to be an actor — though he dare not tell his caustic wife. He secretly reads a book on Marlon Brando in his bathroom. And under the guise of going to poker games, he attends an acting workshop in the city. There, a crusty instructor (Alan Arkin, in a pricelessly wonderful scene) berates Brando for encouraging Method-obsessed actors to pause too much in their line readings.
There’s some post-modern irony in this subplot — a humble, shy Vince auditions for a small role in a Martin Scorsese movie starring De Niro, impressing the casting director with his “naturalism” (really, Garcia’s considerable acting chops) by interpreting his scene as if he was still at work as a prison guard. (There’s a second layer of irony in this standout scene, as Vince is actually imitating Tony.)
This Vince-as-actor subplot also allows Garcia to show his tenderness in scenes with a fellow acting student (an overly affected Emily Mortimer, who reminds of Margot Kidder in Superman). You can see here Vince reveal the life he’d like to live and the person he’d like to be.
City Island shoehorns its loose plot strands into a big, loud scene where the camera flits back and forth trying to keep up with the characters as they shout out their secrets. It’s meant to be cathartic, but it’s formulaic.
What remains is how appealing Garcia is and how you’d like to see more of him as a middle-aged leading man in better movies. Grade: C-plus