Robert De Niro, right, and James Franco

Robert De Niro, right, is a cop and father to James Franco's Joey. (PHILLIP V. CARUSO)

"City by the Sea" is the cinematic equivalent of defensive driving: It's careful, conscientious and makes no major mistakes. But what saves lives on the freeway does not necessarily make for persuasive viewing.

This story of troubled souls in a ruined city--with a sins-of-the-fathers theme thrown in free of charge--has something of the feel of earnest postwar studio films like Nicholas Ray's 1949 "Knock on Any Door." Director Michael Caton-Jones is a reliable craftsman, and "City by the Sea" contains any number of good things. What it doesn't offer is a compelling reason to see it.

In fact, those sequences in which the film rouses itself and delivers sparkling moments--for instance when Robert De Niro and Patti LuPone go at each other as a hostile divorced couple--just serve to remind us of the involvement we've been missing the rest of the time.

Because it is solid, "City by the Sea's" key difficulty turns out to be hidden in plain sight. For even though De Niro can be peerless, and even though he's played enough cops to quality for a pension, the convergence of this particular actor and this particular role turns out to be less than desirable.

As much a major player as any of the performers is the city of the film's title. That would be Long Beach, N.Y., a derelict resort town on Long Island's southern shore that, one character says, "looks like the Serbian Army came through." It's so the kind of place Bruce Springsteen would love that it's no surprise to find that the film was actually shot in the Boss' Asbury Park, N.J., hometown.

Speaking of Springsteen, we first see Joey Nova ("James Dean's" charismatic James Franco), so called because of the car he loves, wandering through desolate streets clutching a guitar that he's trying to sell for enough money for a fix.

Though a major user, Joey is a junkie of the sensitive poet type, a basically good kid who's made a number of bad choices, including abandoning a son he fathered with ex-girlfriend Gina (Eliza Dushku). The film has barely started before he makes another mistake, and suddenly, almost unintentionally, a drug dealer named Picasso is dead.

Picasso's demise may be bad for Joey, but it is good for the film in that it introduces William Forsythe as Spyder, the town's drug kingpin, and a man who takes the loss of his dealers seriously. An underappreciated character actor who's been in everything from "Once Upon a Time in America" to "The Waterdance" and who specializes in delivering menace with authority, Forsythe's convincing performance keeps "City by the Sea" alive. When he screams "You're dead" at someone, they believe it, and so do we.

As Joey's story unfolds, so does that of the father he hasn't seen in 14 years, ever since Vincent LaMarca (De Niro) walked out on his son after a particularly acrimonious divorce. Now a top Manhattan homicide detective, LaMarca leads what might be called an arm's-length life.

LaMarca's girlfriend, Michelle (Frances McDormand), lives a floor below him, and the detective likes it that way. His married partner, Reg (George Dzunda), keeps inviting him over to bask in the joys of family life, but the detective says that too much love makes him feel uncomfortable.

LaMarca's comfort level is shattered for good when, wouldn't you know it, he and Reg are the guys on duty when Picasso's body picturesquely washes up just past the Brooklyn Bridge. Just like that, the detective is investigating a homicide where his own son looks to be suspect No. 1.

As written by Ken Hixon, "City by the Sea's" story is one of an emotionally unavailable man forced by circumstances to reconnect with life. Having a bottled-up main character can be a risk for a film, and the way De Niro plays LaMarca adds to the difficulty.

Looking here like a vaguely menacing teddy bear, De Niro is not an actor you want to encourage to go into a shell. His phlegmatism here makes it seem like he's walking through his part even if he's not, and he gives co-star McDormand so little to play against that this excellent actress doesn't make the impression she should.

Though it's based on a true story (specifically a 1997 Esquire article written by Mike McAlary) "City by the Sea" has trouble seeming real. Its back story, involving the sins of Detective LaMarca's own father, feels contrived and the eventual resolution is simultaneously shaky and too pat. De Niro may be an elder statesman of American acting, but having him play like one is not to be encouraged.

MPAA rating: R, for language, drug use and some violence. Times guidelines: The language is stronger than the violence.

"City by the Sea"
Robert De Niro...Vincent La Marca
Frances McDormand...Michelle
James Franco...Joey
Eliza Dushku...Gina
William Forsythe...Spyder
George Dzunda...Reg Duffy

Franchise Pictures presents, a Brad Grey Pictures production, released by Warner Bros. Director Michael Caton-Jones. Producers Brad Grey, Elie Samaha, Michael Caton-Jones, Matthew Baer. Executive producers Andrew Stevens, Dan Klores, Don Carmody, Roger Paradiso. Screenplay Ken Hixon, based on an article by Michael McAlary. Cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaun. Editor Jim Clark. Costumes Richard Owings. Music John Murphy. Production design Jane Musky. Art director Patricia Woodbridge. Set decorator B. Lynn Tonneson. Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes.

In general release.