City by the Sea (2002), Run-time 108mins, Cert 15.

Director - Michael Caton Jones.

Writer - Ken Hixon.

Starring - Robert De Niro, James Franco, Frances McDormand, Eliza Dushka, William Forsythe & George Dzundza.

 

Premise - Vincent LaMarca (Robert De Niro) is a detective with the New York PD, whom 14 years ago left his wife and young son, Joey (James Franco) in Long Beach. When a body floats up with a Long Beach driver’s licence, Vincent finds himself back in his old stomping ground looking for a killer, that all the evidence points towards being his own son.

City by the Sea opens with an old tourist film reel of Long Beach in its heyday. Long, golden beaches and promenades filled with tourists. This segues into the Long Beach of today, desolated, riddled with drug addicts and crime. It’s a dark and gritty backdrop for a dark and gritty film. Erroneously advertised by the studio as a crime thriller to get more bums on seats, City by the Sea is actually a character driven piece about fathers and their sons.

The film shares many themes with one of my favourite films of last year, Road to Perdition. That film too focused on fathers and sons and it too was an acting masterclass. City by the Sea would surly fail to impress if it wasn’t for the superlative standard of acting by all involved. Top of the pile is Robert De Niro. For too long now De Niro has languished in lame comedy hell. Appearing in tripe like ’15 Minutes’, ‘Showtime’ and ‘Rocky & Bullwinkle’ has done his resume no good at all. Only now and then have we seen the genius of De Niro that was so evident in the 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s.

Here De Niro takes it right back, to echo the kind of performances we know he is capable of. Vincent LaMarca is a man that has lived his life constantly regretting the decisions he has made. De Niro melts into this role, you hardly recognise it as acting, it’s so effortless for him. The years of hurt are written all over Vincent’s face, he wants to do the right thing by his son, but his life as a cop gives him a hard choice. Does he be a father, or a cop?

It’s not just De Niro that is on the top of his game here. Frances McDormand has what is traditionally a poor role in a crime thriller, the female partner of the main character. These parts are usually disposable and serve no real purpose, but McDormand stamps her authority on the role. Thanks to her performance and the strength of the writing for her character, her role actually has resonance in respect to the decisions made by Vincent.

The old timers certainly impress in this film, but I was also incredibly impressed by the two (relative) newcomers to the movie scene. You will probably have seen James Franco as Harry Osborne in Spider-Man, he was good in that, but here he shows signs that he will have a career outside of that franchise.

Looking scruffy and dishevelled for the entire movie he is a broken young man. Deserted by his father at a young age he often means to contact him, but never works up the courage. He is a junkie and forever dreams of flying away to Key West to rebuild his life. Franco is constantly being referred to as the next James Dean so it is no mean feat for him to pass so easily for a down and out drug addict. It’s an excellent performance in a film stuffed silly with them.

The other newcomer is Eliza Dushka, you may be aware of her from the TV series Buffy where she plays the rogue slayer Faith. She doesn’t have a huge role here, but she leaves a lasting impression. It’s testament to what she can do, that in her many scenes with De Niro she never gets overshadowed. Her final scene in particular is an amazing piece of work. With performances like this she has a rosy future ahead of her. The rest of the cast is made up of capable support players. George Dzundza has a nice role as De Niro’s partner and William Forsythe does well as a mean biker (does he play anything else?).

It’s a shame then that when you strip back the subtext and the outstanding cast, what you are left with is a fairly pedestrian cop thriller that is littered with obvious plot turns. I read that the film is based loosely on actual events; well it must be incredibly loose because no real life crime could present such obvious occurrences. For example, the second you hear George Dzunda’s character speak about his family you know exactly where his fate lies. Also, the film ends with what is basically a bog standard shoot out.

It’s infuriating as the standard of acting and writing for the characters really deserves a better story. Director Michael Canton Jones keeps things as sprightly as possible, but again he’s fighting against the weak source material. Also, I really hope it wasn’t his idea to include a horrible ‘conscience’ scene with De Niro staring into space as we hear various snippets of dialogue, it’s a tired old cliché and it just feels ‘cheap’.

City by the Sea is worth watching because of the wonderful ensemble cast and because we finally get to see De Niro doing the kind of work that we all know he is more than capable of. Obvious plotting aside, I recommend this film as an engrossing character study about the choices fathers make and their relationships with their sons.

 

7()/10.

See City by the Sea if you enjoyed – Road to Perdition, This Boys Life, Magnolia.

Poster Quote – Worst Fathers Day ever….