Los Angeles Times

Movie review, 'City by the Sea'

Sometimes even movies that try hard for contemporary realism and grit get smothered by fakery. "City by the Sea," based on the real-life LaMarca murder case, is a prime example. It stars Robert De Niro as New York homicide cop Vincent LaMarca and James Franco as his son Joey, prime suspect in a 1996 Long Beach murder. In the beginning, this picture seems startlingly vivid and real, a breath of fresh, cold air.

Opening with grainy color footage of 1950s Long Beach, culled from a banal and technically cheesy promo film, the movie then segues into what is supposedly Long Beach today: a gray windswept stretch of beach and boardwalk populated by wandering druggies, including tall, strung-out Joey, who is vainly trying to hock an electric guitar for some crack. The scene is wonderfully evocative, shot by Scottish director Michael Caton-Jones and German cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub, and cut by Englishman Jim Clark with a sharp eye for dreary dead-end lives and modern urban desolation. The fact that this scene is shot not in Long Beach but in Asbury Park, N.J. (rocker Bruce Springsteen's territory), shouldn't matter much - and neither should the whiff of melodrama flavoring Joey's hunt for drugs and his home confrontation with his weary mom (Patti Lupone). After all, we know that Robert De Niro and Frances McDormand are the stars; their presence suggests the movie won't stumble much dramatically.

Unfortunately it does. "City by the Sea" takes a fascinating true story and turns it into a conventional cop thriller, hoking up the provocative three-generation saga of the LaMarca family: Angelo LaMarca, an executed baby kidnapper and killer; his son Vincent (De Niro), a first-class homicide cop who lived down his dad's crimes; and Vincent's son Joey (Franco), who falls into bad company and starts the cycle of crime all over again. Despite many good moments, writer Ken Hixon and Caton-Jones take the stuff of Mike McAlary's 1997 Esquire Magazine article, "Mark of a Murderer," and fill it up with cliched violence and phony climaxes, TV show heroics and ersatz redemption. In doing so, they muffle or lose what's mysterious and even profound about their own story.

Most, but not all, of those moments involve De Niro, who seems to be playing a classic De Niro role: a good, streetwise, humane cop who finds, while investigating the brutal murder of a local drug dealer, that his son - raised away from him by estranged wife Maggie - may be the killer. De Niro amusingly overplayed his recent big-hit comic parts in "Meet the Parents" and "Analyze This," but here he changes keys, keeping everything low-key and tamped down.

The young De Niro specialized in screw-ups or outsiders like Johnny Boy in "Mean Streets" or Travis in "Taxi Driver"; back then, the Bobby D. role would have been Joey. But the older De Niro tends to play tough, canny, sometimes edgy pros. When we discover Vincent's past, De Niro subtly conveys that stored up, bottled pain. As he interacts with pragmatic partner Reg (George Dzundza, the chubby bar guy in "The Deer Hunter") and, even more convincingly, with wised-up lady friend Michelle (McDormand), we see his stoic surface ripping open over deep wounds.

De Niro makes that dramatic quandary work - even though it's a fake, too. The real-life Vincent was retired in Florida at the time of Joey's murder and had nothing to do with the investigation. There was no drug dealer villain lurking around like William Forsythe's Spyder, and Joey's murder itself was not part of the movie's ruckus and flare-up, but something vicious and premeditated. The movie cleans up Joey and brings Vincent too far into the story - which would have been better, dramatically, if we first saw Joey as the cold, cruel killer he apparently was in real life.

Michael Caton-Jones is a good director ("Scandal," "Memphis Belle") who doesn't always get good scripts ("Doc Hollywood," "The Jackal"), though in this case he may be partly to blame for the movie's falseness. The changes here are the kind of hackneyed brainstorms you expect in a studio movie - and a tougher, more stylish director might even have made them work. Yet, once the decision was made to turn Vincent into the cop investigating his son's case, the rest of the movie's wild stretches follow almost inevitably: Spyder's evil doings, the second killing, girlfriend Gina's (Eliza Dushku) plight, and the last wildly improbable showdown in an abandoned warehouse.

These are the kind of scenes usually concocted for cop thrillers. What would have been more interesting - to split the true story into three strands running simultaneously, with the grandfather's crime, the son's redemption and the grandson's fall all juxtaposed - isn't even attempted, though it's vaguely suggested. Yet what's moving about Vincent is his real triumph and anguish, not some fantasy about a fictional alter ego tracking down his own son and another killer.

What's moving about Joey is the way he succumbs to his family demons - not the notion of a victim who redeems himself.

This movie is almost suffocatingly fixated on redemption - with the result that none of its imaginary soul recovery seems remotely plausible.

Perhaps, wanting a script that could be a showcase for De Niro, the moviemakers have deliberately overloaded Vincent's story. They end up turning him into a kind of secular saint: the perfect cop, boyfriend and granddad trying to make up for his failures as a dad. Or perhaps they were all too eager (McAlary included) to turn truth into a movie.

If so, they were kidding themselves, as well as us. Good drama often shows flawed characters struggling against shortcomings. Standard thrillers-as-usual instead set up prototypical conflicts and clashes for heroes who are automatic winners. All movie long, "City by the Sea" swings from one approach to the other, but in the end, it stays in formula - which is a waste of De Niro, McDormand and the other good actors in the cast. It's even a waste of Asbury Park.

2 1/2 stars (out of 4)
"City by the Sea"

Directed by Michael Caton-Jones; written by Ken Hixon, based on the Esquire Magazine article "Mark of a Murderer" by Michael McAlary; photographed by Karl Walter Lindenlaub; edited by Jim Clark; production designed by Jane Musky; music by John Murphy; produced by Brad Grey, Elie Samaha, Caton-Jones, Matthew Baer. A Warner Bros. release; opens Friday, Sept. 6. Running time: 1:48. MPAA rating: R (language, drug use and some violence).
Vincent LaMarca - Robert De Niro
Michelle - Frances McDormand
Joey LaMarca - James Franco
Gina - Eliza Dushku
Spyder - William Forsythe
Reg Duffy - George Dzundza Maggie - Patti Lupone

Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times