City by the Sea is a lot like Long Beach, the decrepit New York seaside resort in which it is set: compulsively, sometimes creepily watchable on the outside, but look beneath the surface, and there's not much there.
The surface here looks mighty impressive. The cast includes Robert De Niro (in a tightly controlled performance that suggests there are layers to his cinematic persona that still haven't been plumbed fully), Frances McDormand, James Franco, Patti LuPone, William Forsythe, George Dzundza and Eliza Dushku - an impressive collection of Oscar winners, established supporting players and rising stars. The director is Brit Michael Caton-Jones, whose work has ranged from the sublime (Scandal, one of the '80s' best) to the overly indulgent (a remake of The Jackal that was cinematic overkill). The source material is an acclaimed magazine article by the late Mike McAlary.
And the true story on which it is based is the stuff of Greek tragedy. Vincent LaMarca was only 9 when his father was executed by the state of New York for having killed a 1-year-old baby during a kidnapping gone horribly wrong (the child was left face down in the dirt and suffocated). Determined to clear his family name, and under the mentorship of the cop who arrested his father, LaMarca would become a Long Beach detective, a legend among his fellow police officers. But soon after his retirement, his son Joey would stab a man to death and be sentenced to 15 to 20 years in prison.
So far, so good. But Caton-Jones and screenwriter Ken Hixon (Inventing the Abotts), don't do well by the tale they've been given to work with. They've softened its edges considerably, making the characters more likable and their actions (not to mention the results thereof) more formulaic. They've opted against the gritty feel a story like this deserves, and fail to go beyond the obvious when it comes to metaphors, subtexts and other such devices. The job they do is serviceable, but rarely more.
The film opens with Vincent LaMarca (De Niro) clearly established as a mainstay of the Long Beach police force. Respected but not exactly loved, LaMarca takes pains to steer clear of emotional attachments; when his partner, Reg Duffy (Dzundza), invites him over for dinner, he says no. There's too much happiness at the Duffy house, Vincent explains.
That standoffishness extends to his personal relationships as well. For a year now, he's been seeing the woman who lives in the apartment one floor down, a waitress named Michelle (McDormand). They've established a relationship, but it's all rote: Vincent meets her after work, walks her home, they go to bed, then they go to their separate apartments and start all over again the next day. That, Michelle fears, is as close as Vincent is willing to be to anyone. And she's right.
Of course, considering Vincent's background, it's easy to see why he's built a wall around his emotions. And things get worse when Joey (James Franco), his son by an earlier marriage (that ended badly, with Vincent losing control and striking his wife), turns up as the chief suspect in a drug-related murder.
Vincent barely knows Joey, but we know all about him. We've seen him getting wasted on heroin, we've seen him wandering the streets desperately searching for a fix. But we also know he's got a soul - when he breaks into a veterinarian's office to steal drugs, he also steals a little stuffed toy for his baby son - and that, given the chance, he could turn his life around. At least, that's what the movie insists that we think; Joey spends 20 percent of the movie strung out, the other 80 percent repentant.
We've even seen Joey kill the guy, a drug dealer named Picasso who definitely had it coming. Anyway, it was an accident.
The real tragic figure in all this is Vincent LaMarca, and De Niro wisely underplays him, putting onscreen a man who long ago decided the only way to control his emotions was not to have any. He has to bring his son in, hopefully without hurting him. He's got to persuade Michelle to hang around, even though he's spent so long playing his emotions close to the vest, he doesn't know how else to play them. He's got to keep his job (in the film version, he's not yet retired), not easy when the New York tabloids keep asking how the son of a baby killer got himself on the police force. And he's got to do all this in what has got to be one of the bleakest urban landscapes outside of Dante's imagination.
In fact, the cast list should include Long Beach, for it's every bit as integral to the movie as De Niro or anyone else. This is one sorry-looking town, a seaside resort that was once glorious and fun (Vincent frequently waxes poetic about his childhood there) but is now a boil waiting to be lanced. Filled with vacant storefronts and decaying boardwalks, it's also home to a decrepit old casino that's been turned into an addicts' shooting gallery, where much of the action of the film takes is set.
(Admittedly, the film takes place during the off-season, when even the most respectable seaside resort resembles a ghost town. But the Long Beach depicted here is way beyond a seasonal resuscitation.)
Caton-Jones frequently shows old footage of the town's glory days, when families flocked to it and the future looked as gaudy as the brightly painted clown faces peering out from nearly every wall. The analogy to the LaMarca clan is clear (and stressed repeatedly): there was a time when their future, too, looked rosy, when the world looked full of promise. Vincent's dad was a loving father until, in desperate financial straits, he experienced a fatal lack of judgment. Joey was the quarterback of his high-school's championship football team. All that seems so long ago, preserved only in pictures.
It's a shame the filmmakers couldn't do more with the Long Beach connection than repeatedly restate the obvious. All during the film, I kept thinking of Louis Malle's brilliant Atlantic City and how skillfully he made that decaying resort city a character in his film; the connection between the fate of the city and the fate of his characters was always clear but never obvious. Caton-Jones' approach is hamfisted by comparison, the difference between subliminal advertising and a highway billboard.
City by the Sea
Starring Robert De Niro, Frances McDormand
Directed by Michael Caton-Jones
Released by Warner Bros.
Rated R (Language, violence, drug use)
Time 108 minutes