City by the Sea
In “City by the Sea,” Robert DeNiro plays veteran Manhattan homicide detective Vincent LaMarca, a man who put his career ahead of his marriage and relationship with his son. It’s been fourteen years since LaMarca last saw his son Joey (James Franco), now a drug-addict scouring the decrepit boardwalk of Long Beach, Long Island for his latest fix.
DeNiro has played so many cops they’re second nature to him. Like a worn out phonograph needle trying to navigate a broken record, DeNiro is back in the same groove. He’s not bad a LaMarca, a man whose past weighs down on him like an anchor. LaMarca is good at his job. What he’s not good at is relationships. “City by the Sea” is at its best when it explores this flaw, and at its worst when it settles into a traditional, paint-by-numbers detective thriller. Directed by Michael Caton-Jones, who teamed up with DeNiro in “This Boy’s Life,” “City by the Sea” is awash in a sea of discontent. It’s filled with buoyant performances, but nothing else floats in this tried and tired drama.
The film is good example where the actors become much better than the words on the page. The screenplay by Ken Hixon is based on a magazine article, and it feels thin. Like a dead gazelle after a lion lunch, there’s not much to feast on Fortunately, good actors like DeNiro, Frances McDormand and Patti Lupone can make a meal out of a morsel.
In lesser hands, “City by the Sea” would lose its emotional core and become nothing more than melodrama. I just wish director Caton-Jones had as much conviction as his performers. He captures their emotions and reactions from a distance, even when he has them in close-up.
Perhaps he’s paying homage to the gritty thrillers of the seventies like “The French Connection” and “The Seven Ups,” or maybe he knows that audiences have been down this road so many times before and is trying to give them something different. Director of photography Karl Walter Lindenlaub gives Caton-Jones a perfectly realized world of shadows and decay.
We don’t so much care what the characters do as what they do to each other. The characters arrive with a lot of baggage, some of it heavy, most of it inconsequential. The actors are at their best as they unpack, slowly offering little glimpses of what they’ve been carrying around. If the crime drama had as much ballast and emotional resonance as the human drama, “City by the Sea” would have been a great film.
Even though LaMarca hasn’t seen his son in years, we feel DeNiro’s paternal instincts when Joey is implicated in a cop killing. LaMarca demands that he be allowed to located and bring in his son, and in true fashion, becomes a lone wolf when his request is denied. Most actors would howl through this cliche, but DeNiro plays it with every ounce of confidence he can muster. We may be rolling our eyes, but DeNiro never blinks.
We learn a lot about LaMarca from his girlfriend Michelle, who even though she lives downstairs from him, finds it difficult to share his life. There’s good reason LaMarca never talks about his past. His father was an executed killer, and the marriage that produced Joey didn’t turn out much better. When Joey becomes his prime suspect, LaMarca is faced with an unexpected and difficult reunion with ex-wife Maggie (Lupone).
The dysfunctional family dynamic is the film’s calling card, the only ace in a hand of jokers. We care more about LaMarca and Joey reconnecting than about the cop apprehending his prey. James Franco, who turned in a blistering award-winning performance in “The James Dean Story,” takes the conventional role of the confused, strung-out street junkie and turns him into a character we can sympathize with.
McDormand and Lupone are equally strong as the women in LaMarca’s life. We almost feel sorry for Michelle, a woman with a good heart who recognizes the warning signs and ignores them. Lupone is fierce and fiery as the ex-wife whose short marriage to LaMarca felt like a lifetime of agony.
A number of films have been made from magazine articles, from the landmark “Saturday Night Fever” to the embarrassing “Perfect” (what, does John Travolta have a lock on these things?). “City by the Sea” falls somewhere in between. It’s not the page turner that the material or the cast demands.
Striking 2.20:1 widescreen transfer looks sharp no matter what time of day it is. Colors are almost perfect, and flesh tones are extremely realistic. Attention to detail is fine tuned, and depth of field is very bracing. No criminal artifacts to speak of, just an occasional halo effects in some of the darker scenes. The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track is the DVD’s best friend, an awesome collection of strong dialogue, pinpoint surround effects, equally pleasing high and low ends, and a strong bass line that pounds the action home. No distracting hiss or flutter here. In what appears as a last ditch effort to get a commentary track listed on the back cover, the producer and writer chime in, but their effort seems more functional than fun. Also look for a short featurette with director Caton-Jones as he discusses his technique.
CITY BY THE SEA
WARNER HOME VIDEO
Robert DeNiro, Frances McDormand, James Franco, Eliza Dushku, William Forsythe, George Dzunda. Directed by Michael Caton-Jones. Rated R. 108 Minutes.