The opening scenes of "City by the Sea" are hauntingly evocative. In stock, picture postcard footage from the 1950s, Long Beach, New York, is portrayed as a joyous and popular vacation spot for beachgoers. Fifty years later, it is a dreary, desolate wasteland of broken dreams and dead-end lives. The famed resort it once was now lays home primarily to homeless people and drug dealers. Loosely based on the article "Mark of a Murderer" by Michael McAlary (which was based on a true story), "City by the Sea" is a police thriller in plot, but is not as concerned with presenting action setpieces and shootouts as it is with delving into the who's, what's, and why's of its ensemble. For director Michael Caton-Jones (who previously teamed with Robert De Niro in 1993's "This Boy's Life"), his favoring of rich characterizations over more cliched storytelling tactics is admirable, but he, along with screenwriter Ken Hixon (1997's "Inventing the Abbotts"), fail to provide adequate focus to the proceedings.
Vincent LaMarca (Robert De Niro) is a New York City detective put on the case of a murdered body washed ashore on the beach of Long Island until the top suspect becomes his estranged, drug-addicted son, Joey (James Franco). For Vincent, who walked out on his family years ago and whose own father was executed for murder when he was just a child himself, his goal does not so much become arresting Joey as it is simply finding him and getting to the bottom of how and why he has turned out to way he has.
The well-earned prestige that "City by the Sea" holds comes in the form of its top-notch cast who, with only one exception, are excellent. Robert De Niro (2002's "Showtime
"), inarguably one of the greatest and most respected actors working today, has leaned toward comedic roles in recent years, but returns here in the kind of challenging, heavy role that made him famous. The film is De Niro's all the way, and his portrayal of the anguished Vincent LaMarca, who has turned his back on some of his biggest responsibilities in life, is complicated and rewarding.
For James Franco (2002's "Spider-Man
"), it turns out his casting in the title role of 2001's "James Dean" was no fluke. In looks, body language, and acting style, Franco recalls not only the work of Dean, but also a young Marlon Brando. As Joey, who has seen his life change from star high school quarterback to homeless drug addict in only a few years' time, Franco has many of the film's most emotionally demanding scenes, and he has never been so impressive.
As Vincent's downstairs neighbor and sort-of girlfriend Michelle, Frances McDormand (2000's "Almost Famous
") proves once again why she is such a marvelous actress. Michelle is not a fully developed character so much as a device that allows Vincent to have someone to confide in, and what McDormand manages to do with such an underwritten role is amazing. Finally moving away from the teen movie parts she has had in the last few years, Eliza Dushku (2002's "The New Guy
") is effective but disappears too quickly as recovering junky Gina, Joey's ex-girlfriend and the mother of his infant son, who is tempted to get back into drugs herself. The only flaw on the cast list is William Forsythe (1999's "Blue Streak
"), nothing but an ill-advised irritation as Spyuder, a friend of the drug dealer Joey murdered who vows to seek vengeance on his death.
The performances deserve mentioning to such an extensive degree because, aside from the added bonus of some indelible visuals from cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub (2001's "The Princess Diaries
"), there is little else that proves worthwhile. The father-son relationship between Vincent and Joey, while striking some true notes, pales in the shadow of 2002's "Road to Perdition
." Deliberately paced, "City by the Sea" takes its time in order to absorb the nuances of its actors, but almost seems like it doesn't care much about where it is going and how it is going to get there. The lack of momentum that usually drives such a film forward is absent, and in return, the viewer has trouble working up much driving interest in what will happen next. It doesn't help that the last fifteen minutes are ill-conceived, at best, first misstepping with an audience-insulting scene in which past dialogue from the various characters permeates in the head of Vincent, and then turning to a cornball final confrontation between Joey and Vincent.
For a glimpse of how wonderful actors can so effortlessly transcend the material they have been given to work with, "City by the Sea" holds a certain amount of value. At the same time, director Michael Caton-Jones has trouble fleshing out some of the characters the way he wants to, and then grossly underestimates the viewer's intelligence by film's end. Vincent LaMarca is a flawed protagonist memorable enough to stay with us long after the credits have rolled, as is the ghost town setting of Long Beach. Unfortunately, not much else does.
©2002 by Dustin Putman