Somber, straightforward "City by the Sea" revives ghosts from the 1950s, both those of its central character and of an era obsessed on stage and screen with kitchen-sink realism. Ken Hixon liberally adapts the true story of the tragic LeMarca family often softening actual events to observe how a good cop deals with a drug-addicted son.
This review was updated on Aug. 30, 2002.
Somber, straightforward “City by the Sea” revives ghosts from the 1950s, both those of its central character and of an era obsessed on stage and screen with kitchen-sink realism. Ken Hixon liberally adapts the true story of the tragic LeMarca family — first reported by Esquire magazine scribe Mike McAlary — often softening actual events to observe how a good cop deals with a drug-addicted son who has committed murder. Robert De Niro’s reunion with helmer Michael Caton-Jones doesn’t stoke the same fire as their previous pere-fils drama, “This Boy’s Life,” partly because De Niro’s latest portrayal of a troubled cop feels so familiar. B.O. reception will be respectable but muted, with De Niro fans carrying pic along in this year’s thin early September period.
McAlary’s account connects young Joey LaMarca’s vicious murder of a low-life in the run-down resort of Long Beach outside of New York City to the notorious homicide of a baby 40 years earlier by LaMarca’s grandfather, Angelo, in playing out its atavistic theme of the psychological pressures on fathers and sons. Respected cop Vincent LaMarca (De Niro) — father of Joey, son of Angelo –insists both men were responsible for their actions, and not victims of a theoretical “murder gene.”
“City” could easily have been a large-canvassed movie examining the three generations of men in equal measure, but Caton-Jones compresses the story, focusing only on Vincent and his reactions to Joey’s (James Franco) downfall.
The stage is set in Long Beach, as Joey hocks his guitar for cash to buy heroin from connection Snake (Brian Tarantina). Dazed and high, Joey suddenly finds himself tussling and half-unconsciously stabbing a dealer attacking Snake. (This is a divergence from the real-life murder perpetrated by Joey, which was premeditated, ruthless and grotesque.)
Meanwhile, in Gotham, Vincent is living in a walk-up apartment, just a floor below g.f. Michelle (Frances McDormand), who he has been dating for a year and who knows nothing of his troubled past.
Plot begins to operate on parallel tracks, as Vincent’s partner Reg (George Dzundza) examines the dumped body of the murdered dealer and the investigation leads back to Vincent’s former haunts in Long Beach, while the dealer’s partner Spyder (William Forsythe, in his latest scumbag role) puts the heat first on Snake to fess up about the killing, and then on Joey’s estranged g.f. Gina (Eliza Dushku) for Joey’s whereabouts.
At the 30-minute mark, Vincent learns that the suspect in the murder is Joey, with whom he’s been out of touch for 14 years since Vincent walked out on wife Maggie (Patti Lupone). Having concealed his darker heritage, Vincent must now tell the truth to Michelle — both about Joey and about his own father. Caton-Jones shrewdly stages this confession over dinner, and the scene is delivered so precisely that the viewer’s response is the same as Michelle’s.
The existence of Joey and Gina’s little son Angelo suggests Vincent eventually might have a chance at redemption.
De Niro infuses his familiar NYC cop identity with a feeling of near-exhaustion and emotional fatigue, the outward face of a man who has been privately suffering for years. Franco, meanwhile, plays every moment like he’s hopelessly trapped, which tends to rob Joey of the context his character needs in order to achieve the balance of sympathies between father and son called for in Hixon’s dramatic revisions of the McAlary article. An extended 15-minute action sequence that finally leads to Joey’s arrest alternates between the intriguing and the routine.
McDormand adds more to Michelle than is on the page. In the end, however, her character is still little more than a lover who wants to better understand her man. Dushku and Lupone have smaller but much rangier roles, and each effectively pulls out the stops when the moment calls for it.
A gray mood permeates this color film, especially in the gutted beachside resort area (Bruce Springsteen’s sad hometown of Asbury Park, N.J., substitutes for Long Beach) which Karl Walter Lindenlaub’s camera frames like a giant arena of the lost and abandoned. Violence in this R-rated project is considerably toned down from its source material. The soundtrack uneasily mixes the interesting counterpoint of Chopin and a cheery dance-era theme with John Murphy’s literal-minded scoring.