When you're searching for a killer…the last suspect you want to see is your son.
City by the Sea can be misleading, with high potential to suffer from viewer expectations. It is a crime drama starring Robert De Niro, which may lead you to expect intense action and explosive, seething rage. City by the Sea contains neither. Quite the opposite: little action, long periods of dialogue and exposition, powerful but unglamorized emotions.
If you can look past expectations, City by the Sea offers complex shades of acting by the four leads. The story drags in places, bogged down with awkward dialogue. But the acting is superlative and the story is more mature than typical Hollywood fare. City by the Sea offers a subtle, character-driven story.
Facts of the Case
Detective Vincent Lamarca (Robert De Niro) has an estranged ex-wife and a junkie son. He lives in emotional solitude, smoothly deflecting outreaches from his girlfriend (Frances McDormand as Michelle) and partner (Reg, played by George Dzundza). His once-thriving home of Long Beach has been turned into a concrete wasteland, so he leaves it behind for Manhattan.
His son Joey (James Franco) still calls Long Beach home. Joey haunts the abandoned boardwalk, occasionally venturing out to score drugs or pester his ex-girlfriend Gina (Eliza Dushku). Joey and his fine friend Snake piss off a drug dealer. Joey kills him in self defense and the two dump the body into the ocean. The next morning, the body washes up on the shore of the East River.
Detective Lamarca is abruptly hauled back to Long Beach when he finds out Joey is the prime suspect. He is forced to confront his past, and he must decide how to make it right. Joey faces similar decisions. Can father and son escape the prison of history?
Has Robert De Niro jumped the shark? I've read increasing criticism of his work of late. What's the problem, exactly? Meet the Parents and Analyze This exploited De Niro's edgy past roles to great comedic advantage. Naysayers could mistakenly accuse De Niro of sleepwalking through this picture. He does not. He doesn't raise his voice or gleam with hidden malice. Instead, he plays a man doggedly pursuing the straight and narrow, constrained by poor choices and bad karma, keeping intimacy at arm's length. This performance will not move you unless you're open to a subtler De Niro.
The idea behind City by the Sea comes from the Esquire article "Mark of a Murderer" by Mike McAlary (see sidebar for link). Retired cop Vincent Lamarca's son is the prime suspect in a murder investigation. Sadly, Vincent's father had been electrocuted for murder in the '50s.
Though City by the Sea is based on the article, it punches up the father/son drama by making Vincent a detective on active duty. Furthermore, Vincent is the lead investigator in his son's case. Throw in some extra deaths and cookie-cutter plot twists…suddenly City by the Sea enters the realm of overworked clichés. Why must Hollywood give every story the "Hollywood makeover"? These antics have led to deserved criticism that City by the Sea is predictable and uninspired.
Despite the best efforts of the script and dialogue to make this a mediocre film, City by the Sea is saved by luminous performances. Each wrings humanity and poignancy out of the scant material. The cast skates thin ice over a pond of melodrama, but no one falls in.
Frances McDormand is given a part that would be forgettable in lesser hands. Yet her Michelle is strong, world-weary but unjaded, easygoing but shrewd. She reacts to De Niro in such a natural way that their relationship seems genuine. She displays affection, annoyance, uncertainty, and loathing with conviction. For a primer on good acting, watch her respond to De Niro in the restaurant, where she is given little to do besides respond to reams of exposition. She manages to give us one of the best genuine laughs in the entire picture.
Eliza Dushku and James Franco are a pair of younger actors who hold their own against the mighty De Niro/McDormand duo. Franco is soulful and conflicted. He is an incorrigible miscreant, but retains a spark of his previous humanity. His choices brought him into the mess, but you can still feel for his predicament. Dushku carries the weight of the world on her shoulders. Despite predictably scripted actions, she manages to hold your attention.
Which brings us back to De Niro. It takes some thought to understand his character. The commentary track gives us clues: Detective Lamarca is very comfortable with the proscribed behavior of the police world but the realm of interpersonal contact gives him fits. He's been dating Michelle for a year, but isn't comfortable enough to open up to her. His partner invites him over to dinner, but he declines. He can't even fight very well with his ex-wife, falling back on his police duties to escape. These are moments where the De Niro of GoodFellas would dominate through menace (restrained or otherwise). Here, he is just conflicted and trying to make it through the day. De Niro doesn't cop out by relying on past characterizations. He forges a new veneer of submerged remorse.
The image is artifact free, with no discernable edge enhancement. The lighting is finely handled. The dark scenes appear warm, the outdoor scenes bright and remote. Some interior shots display remarkable facility with lighting, including one fantastic silhouette in the shooting gallery. The audio was adeptly handled as well. The dialogue is distinct and the effects are subtle but realistic. The soundtrack was a good fit to the actions onscreen.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The extras are plentiful, if not gripping. The best of the lot is "Six Words about Filmmaking," where director Michael Caton-Jones discusses filmmaking. They can't count: he uses well over six words. Fortunately, the words are forthright and entertaining. The same cannot be said for the commentary. I was intrigued that the writer was one of the commentators. Unfortunately, not the writer of the actual article at the heart of this story. Instead we hear from Ken Hixon, the one who wrote the screen treatment. Put him together with the producer and you get a low-octane commentary. Some of the statements were so painfully self-evident that my wife snorted from the next room. I've come to learn that "what are you WATCHING?" is code for "this sucks!" Very little of note here. Speaking of notes, here's a tip for filmmakers who get suckered into commentary tracks in the future: use notes. That way you won't just repeat the same tidbit over and over again.
The commentary track doesn't have a monopoly on bad dialogue. The real point of interest was watching how these great actors pulled it off. Forgive me, but the line "Somehow, I feel like I've already lost your respect" lacks street cred.
Though the cast skates the pond of melodrama unscathed, the cinematography gets a foot wet. The cities are a study in contrast, with Manhattan glistening and bustling while Long Beach rots in decrepit misery. The cinematography is occasionally inspired, such as a shot of a plane flying over a rotting roof, or wisps of smoke entering a straw. Then there are shots of Joey walking along large stretches of uninhabited concrete. This technique gives a real sense of the poor state of affairs in Joeys' world, but the camera pounds us relentlessly with themes. Adding insult to injury is the mischaracterization of Long Beach: it does not resemble Beirut. They had to film the Long Beach segments in New Jersey to get the look they were going for. Why not just set it in New Jersey, then?
This geographical sleight-of-hand is forgivable under the "artistic license" defense. The court will allow it. Therefore, the prosecution calls Dr. Frank Lee Nuttz, professor of history at Columbia University.
Prosecution: The prosecution refers the court to section two of the facts of the case, final sentence: "The next day, the body washes up on the shore of the East River." Dr. Nuttz, what qualifies you to testify to the falsehood of this claim?
Dr. Nuttz: In the history department we look at a lot of maps. I also live in New York.
Prosecution: Can you give us your statement?
Dr. Nuttz: Please examine exhibit A. The green dots indicate the shortest possible path that the body could take to float from the ocean at Long Beach to the shore of the East River in Manhattan. You can see that the body would need to float past Breezy Point, navigate the clogged waterway past Sheepshead Bay, pass under, what, five bridges or sumptin'? No freakin way, pal.
Prosecution: So it is your professional opinion that the claim by the filmmakers is not based in the reality of geography?
Dr. Nutz: Unless that body had a propeller or sumptin'.
Prosecution: The Prosecution rests, your honor.
This would have been a much better film had they stuck to the original article. The further you get from the source, the more you rely on fabrication. Fabrication leads to diluted, generic filler. For example, watch the murder scene, then tell me why Picasso has defensive wounds on his forearm? Non-sequiturs, unite!
City by the Sea won't set your DVD collection on fire, but there are compelling reasons to watch it. Robert De Niro works within his familiar cop genre, but does do with a unique and subtle take. The rest of the cast coax depth from it. There are moving, emotionally remote scenes of a decrepit city that add a layer of meaning to the events. If you watch a movie for the performance and not the action, this one is for you.
The actors are free to go, but if I see you in this neighborhood again I won't be so lenient. It's all about respect.
Writer Ken Hixon is charged with a misdemeanor count of plot dilution and aggrivated predictability. He is ordered to purchase 100 subscriptions to Esquire magazine and distribute them to up and coming screenwriters.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Behind the Scenes with Director Michael Caton-Jones
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