`City' Saved By Its Stars
'City by the Sea'
Robert De Niro covers the waterfront as a New York homicide detective who returns to his past in Long Beach, Long Island, after his estranged son, played by James Franco, is named as a prime suspect in a murder in 'City by the Sea.' (©2002 SEABREEZE PROD.)
Based loosely on the true story of a New York police detective who learns his estranged son is the prime suspect in a murder, it easily could have been one of those forgettable sweeps-period offerings featuring Richard Crenna and Helen Shaver.
Instead, it stars Oscar winners Robert De Niro and Frances McDormand, with a supporting cast that includes James Franco, this year's Golden Globe winner for his portrayal of James Dean, and Patti LuPone, who won a Tony two decades ago for "Evita."
For the eminently capable cast alone, the movie would seem to deserve respect. But working from a trite script by Ken Hixon ("Inventing the Abbotts") under the draggy direction of Michael Caton-Jones ("Rob Roy"), none of them is especially compelling.
"City by the Sea" wants to be important and poignant, but ultimately feels familiar to the point of predictability. It contains a veteran cop with a scarred past who chases after generic druggie bad guys with names like Snake and Spyder, and yells things like, "I know you killed my partner, you scumbag."
So we know that when Vincent LaMarca (De Niro) is taken off the murder investigation, he'll end up getting involved anyway, on his terms.
We know that when Vincent's junkie son, Joey (Franco), steals a gun, he'll be suspected of shooting LaMarca's partner because his fingerprints are on the weapon, even though he didn't pull the trigger.
And we know that father and son will have to face long-standing resentments about divorce and abandonment in a showdown in which one of them -- or both -- are holding a gun.
"City by the Sea" also is the victim of unfortunate timing, for a couple of reasons.
Filmed all over New York City in early 2001, it contains several prominent images of the World Trade Center towers, which strike a somber chord upon the one-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and sent a ripple through a recent preview screening in Manhattan.
(Kudos to the filmmakers, though, for leaving those shots in, rather than editing them out or digitally altering them. The buildings were there at one time -- that was the reality when the film was shot.)
And the strained father-son relations feel hackneyed after a summer in which that was the premise of several big movies, including "Road to Perdition" and "Austin Powers in Goldmember." Caton-Jones directed De Niro in another movie with a father-son struggle, 1993's "This Boy's Life" with Leonardo DiCaprio.
Here, he hammers home the familial rift with a repetitive metaphor involving Long Beach, Long Island, the city by the sea of the title (though it was filmed in Bruce Springsteen's adopted hometown of Asbury Park, N.J.).
When LaMarca reflects on the few happy times of his childhood -- his own father was executed for murder when he was 8 -- the beach is sunny, crowded, thriving. When he returns to its present-day reality, the beach is cloudy, empty, decaying. After the first couple of times, we get it already.
Some of the film's smaller moments work, though. De Niro's scenes with McDormand, who's woefully underused as his girlfriend and downstairs neighbor, have a comfortable cadence to them.
And his exchanges with Franco -- still a knockout even playing someone who's strung out -- crackle with authenticity, even though the two actors spend most of the movie apart.
"City by the Sea," a Warner Bros. release, is rated R for strong language, drug use and some violence. Running time: 105 minutes. Two stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G -- General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG -- Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 -- Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R -- Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 -- No one under 17 admitted.