Eccentricity gets in the way of character in "City Island." The people in this heartfelt misfire are entertaining at times, and have hassles and dreams an audience can relate to. But writer-director Raymond De Felitta doesn't trust his characters enough, so he weighs them down with strangeness that detracts from the story.
This is the kind of movie that wants to balance truth and quirkiness, where stars play regular people — or an overly clever writer's version of regular people. These characters actually work for a living, and live in a normal house in a regular, if uniquely charming, neighborhood, but boy, do they have problems.
Andy Garcia — who is also a producer of the movie — plays Vince, the patriarch of the Rizzo family. And what a family it is. His daughter, Vivian (played by Dominik Garcia-Lorido, Garcia's real-life daughter) has flunked out of college and is working as a stripper. Teenaged Vince Jr. (Ezra Miller) has a fetish for feeding fat women. Vince has a couple of secrets of his own: his acting lessons and his adult son from an old relationship.
And that son is about to be released from the very jail where Vince works as a prison guard (or as he likes to say, corrections officer). Vince feels obligated to take care of Tony (Steven Strait), but not to tell his wife or kids — or even Tony — about their relation, so everyone is baffled when Vince brings Tony home.
Vince is one of those unglamorous working man parts actors crave to play at a certain point in their career (think Sylvester Stallone in "Cop Land"). Wearing a prison guard uniform and a little girth on his frame, you can feel Garcia asking us to forget the powerful men he played in the Ocean's movies and "The Godfather Part III."
Vince loves his kids and his wife, Joyce (Julianna Margulies). The couple has the kind of New Yawk relationship where love is expressed by yelling at each other. But some real tension is arising because Joyce thinks her husband is having an affair when he's actually taking acting lessons taught by a second-rate thespian (played by Alan Arkin, the go-to guy to give an independent movie an extra dose of credibility).
There are moments that work in "City Island," particularly between Vince and Joyce. There's always tension between them, but you can see how much they love and need each other. I also liked how Vince interacts with the son he never knew. Strait does a good job of playing a fairly normal person thrust into a land of confusion, and wondering what in the world he's doing there.
Garcia's performance is honest and believable. Vince is a guy who's trying to keep a family together and chase a dream, even if he's well into middle age. He and Margulies are good together, and Garcia's highlight comes during an audition for a Martin Scorsese picture. Garcia also has some nice scenes playing an overly protective father opposite his real-life daughter.
All of that could make most of the movie's contrivances bearable, but it has two major flaws. The first is the character of Vince Jr., whose wisecracks are supposed to be funny, but are only annoying, he's a second-rate Danny Partridge. Neither is Jr.'s feeding-fat-women fetish entertaining, and his neighbor running a website devoted to that obsessions strains credibility.
Even so, I could have overlooked Vince Jr., and accepted "City Island" charms, but the plot reaches a level of miscommunication out of the "Three's Company" school of comedy, involving Vince, Joyce and Vince's classmate (Emily Mortimer) and an ending that rehashes everything we already know. Going through it all once was more than enough.
City Island is Rated PG-13. It contains sexual situations, strong language and smoking. Its running time is 100 minutes.