Very loosely based on a 1997 Esquire article by Pulitzer Prize winner Mike McAlary, “City by the Sea” creates a nice leisurely pace in establishing its characters, conflicts and location. Aided by the skilled hands of director Michael Caton-Jones, the film escapes both the frazzle of the slicker cop pictures and the boredom of the more melancholic. Nevertheless, the movie’s d?nouement fizzles after a well crafted build up. Tensions are resolved with too much convenience, creating an anticlimactic result and destroying a potentially powerful ending.
The “City by the Sea” plot involves a New York homicide detective, Vincent LaMarca (Robert De Niro), who is forced to go back to his hometown of Long Beach, Long Island while investigating the murder of a drug pusher. During the course of the investigation LaMarca discovers that his estranged son Joey (James Franco) is the prime suspect. But the safe capture of his son is jeopardized when a cop’s murder is falsely attributed to Joey. Trying to stop the apprehension of his son by the hands of vengeful cops, LaMarca tries to bring his son in on his own while proving his innocence in the cop’s murder.
While having a solid plot, the film’s main focus is not on the murder investigation, but on the relationships between the main characters. Distant, even to his girlfriend (Frances McDormand), LaMarca is forced to reestablish ties with his son in order to save him. In order to do this, LaMarca has to face the bad memories of his own father, who was executed for the murder of a child.
The use of Long Beach, which is portrayed as a city whose promise of greatness seems to have drowned in the ocean it borders, is a nice metaphor for the disappointing lives of the main characters. Abandonment is a reoccurring theme and the deserted buildings of the city symbolizes it like only a depressed beach community can.
The entire film is well acted, allowing the moviegoer to ignore the more middling scenes of the script. While containing excellent work by McDormand and Eliza Dushku, who plays Franco’s love interest, it the two leads that make the picture.
After proving himself to be the greatest film actor over the last few decades, De Niro seems to be coasting through recent acting jobs; teetering on the edge of mediocrity. With mundane projects like “The Adventure of Rocky and Bullwinkle” and “Showtime”, his performances have suffered from a lack of ambition.
However, in this latest film De Niro seems to be trying to find his way out of his rut. Wonderfully underplaying his role, De Niro sparks hope that the future may hold promising return to greatness.
But despite containing a sort-of reemergence of De Niro’s talent, “City by the Sea” is more of a showcase for the talented Franco, who gained some fame from this summer’s “Spider-Man”. Appearing in the prematurely cancelled NBC show “Freaks and Geeks” and snagging an Emmy for his portrayal of James Dean (whom he resembles) in a recent biopic about the late actor, Franco has carefully created a respectable acting career, which can only be helped by his work in this film.