Film Reviews: Wednesday, September 05, 2002
City by the Sea
Starring Robert De Niro, James Franco, and Frances McDormand. Directed by Michael Caton-Jones. Written by Ken Hixon, based on Michael McAlary’s article. Rated R.
Black Mark

Long Beach, a family, and the movie itself go to hell in City by the Sea.


Most really bad movies announce their presence with no-name casts, ridiculous story ideas, gimmicks, or negative press. Moviegoers are much better at smelling desperation in a marketing campaign than they used to be. It’s hard for a stinker to sneak up on them. City by the Sea, however, doesn’t give off any of the usual warning signs. The cast has some prestige behind it. Director Michael Caton-Jones has a checkered résumé but has done some creditable work, like the underrated Rob Roy.

It even has a fairly promising plot. It mostly takes place in Long Beach, N.Y., but its main character is Manhattan homicide detective Lt. Vincent LaMarca (Robert De Niro). When another New York City cop is murdered, all the evidence points to Vincent’s estranged son Joey (James Franco), a heroin junkie who’s always in trouble. With a citywide manhunt bearing down on him, Joey calls his dad to proclaim his innocence. Unsure whether Joey’s telling the truth, and afraid that his colleagues’ zeal to avenge the death of one of their own will get Joey killed, Vincent is torn between his loyalties as a father and a police officer.

None of this seems out of the realm of plausibility. In fact, the film’s based on a news article. The real Vincent LaMarca was the son of an executed killer (as he is in the film) and lived to see his own son convicted of murdering a drug dealer. In a 1997 story for Esquire magazine, Michael McAlary profiled LaMarca as a noble, tragic figure: a cop with a sterling record in between two generations of murderers.

So far, so good, right? Yet the above plot summary doesn’t say that the murdered police officer happens to be Vincent’s partner (George Dzundza), although once the guy starts talking about his family, you know something bad’s going to happen to him. Nor does it include Vincent’s discovery that Joey has a little boy of his own, who gets left with Vincent by the boy’s mother (Eliza Dushku) because she’s being threatened by the same drug dealer (William Forsythe) who killed Vincent’s partner and is still trying to kill Joey — why doesn’t the dealer just let the cops take Joey down, since they think he’s the killer? Screenwriter Ken Hixon adds on all these contrivances so his story will fit the dimensions of a standardized Hollywood drama, but the real LaMarca’s story was already rife with coincidences and ironies that made it gripping on the page. The result is disastrous. Events pile on each other so thick and fast that when Vincent lays out his history to the woman he’s seeing (Frances McDormand), it’s unintentionally funny — the murder accusation against his son is revealed as an afterthought.

The trailer and tv spots give the impression that the movie’s an action thriller, but there really aren’t many action sequences. The movie’s largely taken up with lugubrious sequences of Vincent dealing with his past. As if trying to compensate, director Caton-Jones hits us over the head with story details. He cues the baby to cry every time the movie needs some extra pathos. The supporting cast overemotes, particularly Franco (who at least looks convincingly strung out) and Patti LuPone as Vincent’s ex-wife.

The décor is ham-handed, too; the city of Long Beach is so run-down that there isn’t a building that doesn’t have graffiti sprayed on the side or a cracked window. The city looks so bad that it’s hard to believe, especially since there’s hardly a black person in sight in this film. The real Long Beach does have its Italian- and Irish-American enclaves, but you wouldn’t know from watching this film that the city also has a large African-American community. This is a rather consistent failing of Hollywood movies that depict New York City — they assume that the outer boroughs are still dominated by the same European ethnic groups that prevailed 50 to 100 years ago.

The two Oscar winners in the cast don’t help too much, either. De Niro’s on auto-pilot here. His clipped, professional demeanor doesn’t suggest the emotions that should be roiling beneath the character’s surface — at least not until the climactic scene, which is good enough that it might have had more impact in a better movie. McDormand is stuck with a thankless role. This may be because her character has no real-life counterpart, and the filmmakers felt pressured to give their main character a confidante or their picture a female lead. Regardless, her character’s left to watch the kid at crucial times and she doesn’t affect the story except when she gives a speech urging Vincent not to give up on his son and/or grandson. If the two leads had been anonymous middle-aged actors, this would be a straight-to-cable drama, but the presence of De Niro and McDormand only makes City by the Sea a loud misfire.

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