“City by the Sea” is an ambitious drama that never reaches any of its goals but has some watchable moments along the way.
It is based on a true story, but one so improbably agonizing that it feels more like an ancient Greek drama. A boy whose father was executed for murder is raised by the cop who arrested his father. He grows up to be a cop himself, with an exemplary record until, investigating the murder of a drug dealer, he begins to believe that the killer he is looking for could be his own son, a drug addict.
Robert DeNiro plays the cop, Vincent LaMarca, a man who has survived since he was a child by being unarguably on the side of the good guys to distance himself from his father. He also distances himself from his ex-wife (Patti LuPone), his girlfriend, Michelle (Frances McDormand), and his son, Joey (James Franco, last seen as Peter Parker’s best friend and romantic rival in “Spider-Man”). The pain of his loss is so profound that he cannot bring himself to share it with anyone. Yet he finds himself continuing the cycle of abandonment, and when the movie starts, just before the drug dealer is killed, Vincent has not seen Joey in years.
The drug dealer’s body washes up in Manhattan, where Vincent works. But his driver’s license shows that he lived in Long Beach, so Vincent begins a physical and emotional journey to the place he once lived with his wife and son, a once-beautiful, now decayed and deserted beach town.
When Joey is implicated, Vincent is clear about his obligations as a detective and as a father. He wants to bring him in before he gets hurt or hurts someone else. But he wants to bring him in – as they walk up to his ex-wife’s house, Vincent tells his partner to cover the back door in case Joey is inside and tries to flee. Joey is not there, and things get complicated. Vincent’s chief removes him from the case. Another person is killed. And Joey wants his father to be less of a cop and more of a dad.
The movie tries to accomplish too much and ends up getting lost. It uses the almost pornographic seediness of the location and the drug subculture to illustrate the emptiness of the lives of the characters. The movie raises issues of choice and fate that tie in to its overtones of Greek drama. Its female lead makes the typical movie relationship demand that her beau tell her more about himself (“Sometimes I think I know you and other times I don’t think I know you at all”). But then, when he does, in a scene that was so awkward it provoked some laughter from the audience, the movie takes an almost unprecedented chance by showing that she is so stunned that she is not sure she can stay in the relationship.
This is another in the series of movies that the New York Times has called the 2002 summer of the sad fathers (with movies like “Minority Report” and “The Road to Perdition”), and, as in “Minority Report,” there is a maudlin watching-the-old-family-movies scene that feels very heavy-handed. Director Michael Caton-Jones handles the atmosphere well, and DeNiro, McDormand, and LuPone are always worth watching, though this is probably DeNiro’s weakest performance, especially in his final scene with his son.
Parents should know that the movie has violence, including shooting and murder, graphic drug use, very strong language, and sexual references and situations, including a child born out of wedlock. Characters drink and smoke. There is a reference to domestic abuse. A character attempts suicide.
Families who see this movie should talk about Vincent’s statement that he doesn’t like to have dinner at his partner’s home because “You got a lot of love in your house and when I go there I feel uncomfortable.” Different characters make reference to “the real me” or “the real you.” What do they mean? How does the director use the burned-out landscape of Long Beach to tell us something about the characters?
Families who enjoy this movie will enjoy The Big Sleep and Insomnia. For a classic, preposterously melodramatic and very creepy movie that raises questions about a genetic predisposition to murder, see The Bad Seed. Families may also want to take a look at this website about the real City by the Sea, complete with live webcams showing what the beach looks like right now.