Starring: Robert DeNiro, James Franco, Frances McDormand, Eliza Dushku
Rated: R for language, drug use and some violence.
Parental Notes: The violence and drug use in this film are brief but powerful, and the overall tone of faint hope in the midst of despair may make it too intense for younger teens.
After watching Robert DeNiro play tough guys for so long it’s disconcerting to see him start to fall apart in “City by the Sea.” DeNiro plays Lieutenant Vincent LaMarca, a homicide detective trying to break his family’s cycle of crime and abandonment.
Angelo LaMarca was executed for the murder of an infant, leaving 8-year-old Vincent an outcast among his peers and missing his father. As an adult, when Vincent got fed up with his wife and divorced her, he gradually stopped going through the trouble of seeing his own son, Joey (James Franco), leaving another young LaMarca missing his father. When the now-grown Joey, whose drug habit has separated him from his own infant son, becomes the prime suspect in one of Vincent’s murder investigations, Vincent has to figure out whether he is a cop or a father to Joey, or if he can somehow be both.
The acting is for the most part superb, although at times the dialog comes across as overwrought. DeNiro is able to let the audience see LaMarca’s internal turmoil through the wall of defenses the man has built around his emotions. Frances McDormand, as Vincent’s girlfriend Michelle, is woefully underused but brings her character’s conflict across with a deft touch. Franco’s performance as Joey is wrenching, and a far cry from the spoiled-little-rich-kid he played in “Spiderman” earlier this year. Joey has hit bottom, and Franco is able to show that without sounding like a TV movie.
Where the film runs into trouble is its dialog. These are emotional subjects, difficult to express in words, and screenwriter Ken Hixon isn’t always able to make the characters sound real. DeNiro and company do the best they can, however, and for the most part they succeed admirably.
The two locations of the film are superbly used. Joey’s world is Long Beach, the once-beautiful beachfront that has since decayed into a place that looks, as Vincent says, “like the Serbian army came through.” Vincent, on the other hand, left Long Beach behind when he left Joey’s mother, and has moved on to Manhattan’s anonymity and order. Things are raw in Long Beach, and going back is hard for Vincent, who is accustomed to the distance at which he can hold the world when he’s in Manhattan.
Overall, “City by the Sea” is a compelling look at the cycles families can get caught in if they do not make the nearly impossible effort to break free. Vincent’s struggle with himself and his son is moving, but not always easy viewing. Those in search of mindless entertainment will be best served elsewhere.