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City by the Sea   C

Warner Bros. Pictures

Year Released: 2002
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Michael Caton-Jones
Writer: Ken Hixon (based on a magazine article by Michael McAlary)
Cast: Robert De Niro, Frances McDormand, James Franco, George Dzundza, Patti LuPone.

Review by Rob Vaux

City by the Sea is about the weight of the past, the pain of mistakes, and the difficulty of changing your life. It espouses a gritty realism of the sort star Robert De Niro is made for, embracing grim drama rather than titillating shoot 'em ups. Heavy-duty stuff... which might explain why the final product feels so ponderous. Its predictability becomes very tedious, and the maudlin way its story unfolds suggests a director fighting against the urge to sensationalize his material.

Director Michael Caton-Jones has done strong work in the past, and his approach here shows good instincts. The city of the title is Long Beach, NY, a former resort town fallen on hard times. The empty boardwalk is festooned with graffiti, the warehouses a haven for dealers and addicts. "Looks like the Serbian army came through," mutters Detective Vincent LaMarca (De Niro), and Caton-Jones does an effective job of translating that visual decay into the spiritual weariness of his characters. LaMarca struggles with memories of a father executed for baby-killing, an ex-wife (Patti LuPone) who can't stand to look at him and an estranged son (James Franco) spiraling downward into drug addiction. Everyone in the film radiates pain and loss, and the blighted city around them echoes their misery. As a set piece, City by the Sea has the feel of great film noir, and its plot of murder and accusation seems perfect for bringing that potential out.

It starts with Franco, who as Joey LaMarca has the haunted eyes of the truly doomed. Bad luck has chased him all his life, and the streak continues when he inadvertently knifes a dealer in a transaction gone bad. His father, who fought off his demons by becoming a sterling police officer, heads up the investigation into the dealer's death. At first the senior LaMarca is all business -- bring the boy in safe, let him face the consequences -- but his hard-nosed approach hides lingering doubts about his failures as a father, and the criminal behavior that -- despite his best efforts -- still seems to run in the family. When a policeman is subsequently killed and it looks for all the world like Joey is the culprit, his resurgent parental instincts come into direct conflict with his duties as a cop.

Considering the heights this set-up could have reached, it's disappointing to see City by the Sea fall into such a predictable pattern. Having established an exquisite mood, Caton-Jones slowly fritters it away on repetition and heavy-handedness. Once you spot the arc of the story, you can count the developments as regular as clockwork. The film often fixates on the characters' indecisiveness, yet it never moves forward quickly enough to capitalize on their dilemma. In his effort to capture the emotional exhaustion of his protagonist, Caton-Jones slows the momentum down to the point of impotence. Even the casting falls victim to routine, with character actors such as George Dzundza and William Forsythe given little more than paying-the-rent stereotypes with which to work (Dzundza plays LaMarca's partner, Forsythe a powerful drug dealer).

Despite that, the actors actually come close to bailing the rest of the film out. De Niro is peerless, and his sense of character here goes a long way towards selling the movie. LaMarca has carried the burden for so many people in his life that he can no longer see the benefit of forming new relations, and De Niro delivers his isolation with subtlety and grace. Frances McDormand strikes a sympathetic chord as LaMarca's lover, trying to understand his unspoken pain. Their relationship is the strongest part of City by the Sea, and it's encouraging to see Caton-Jones treat them so well. Franco, too, delivers a fine performance, and his scenes with De Niro are laced with emotion. And as by-the-numbers as their roles are, Dzunzda and Forsythe do know how to play them well.

Indeed, the workmanlike quality of City by the Sea speaks to a high grade of professionalism on both sides of the camera. I have no doubt that this production came in on time and under budget, and that the studio was pleased with the final results. But there could have been so much more here, and business as usual often translates into material we've seen too often before. The characters are strong, the story is solid, and yet bit by bit, it all melts away before our eyes. For a film that lingers so wistfully on the past, it's hard to find anything memorable about City by the Sea. Memory requires more than it's willing to give.

Review published 09.09.2002.

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