movie review by
Gary Johnson


(© 2002 Warner Bros. © 2002 Franchise Pictures. All rights reserved.)

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City by the Sea

City by the Sea was inspired by a 1997 Esquire article written by journalist Mike McAlary titled "Mark of a Murderer." This article examined a murder investigation where the son of a police officer was the lead suspect. Complicating matters was the police officer's background: while he was growing up in the '50s, his own father had been convicted of murder and executed.

With a screenplay by Ken Hixon, whose previous credits include just three feature films – Grandview U.S.A. (1984), Morgan Stewart's Coming Home (1987), and the more recent Inventing the Abbotts (1997) – City by the Sea is very loosely based on the murder investigation of the police officer's son. However, the filmmakers have taken considerable artistic license with the characters. For example, in the real case, the police officer was in retirement, but in the film version, he's not only still on the job, he's the lead investigator of the murder case. Pretty big coincidence, huh? This type of monkeying with the facts is exactly what's wrong with this movie. The movie is based on a very unusual case, but that wasn't enough for the filmmakers. They decided to spice up the events with a patently phony structure and fabricated characterizations.

The story carries much potential, especially with Robert De Niro in one of the leading roles and Frances McDormand in an important supporting role. De Niro plays Vincent LaMarca, a New York City homicide detective, and McDormand plays his girlfriend, Michelle. Without a doubt, they're the best thing about this movie and if this hadn't been a "based on a true story" type of film, maybe the filmmakers would've had the courage to go with this strength and build the film around them. But exactly because the movie is based on real events, the filmmakers dutifully keep the story of LaMarca's son in the foreground. Unfortunately, however, James Franco (recently seen in Spider-Man), who plays LaMarca's son, is no match for De Niro and McDormand. He never finds the humanity in his character, and this is important when you're playing a rather pathetic, chronic drug addict, as he does here. Instead, the movie offers us a pat, predictable course toward reconciliation between father and son, like you might find in a made-for-TV docudrama. (Interestingly, screenwriter Hixon also penned the 1994 TV drama Secret Sins of the Father, and that title could have serverd here equally well.)

Much of this movie is so overly planned and plotted that the characters rarely have much room to breathe. Once again, this is the effect of starting with a plot and then trying to drop in characters to fill the roles. As a result, the movie's relatively unique scenario becomes ordinary. It becomes run of the mill. Within this artifice, the two real characters in the movie stand out. What's so special about De Niro and McDormand is their relationship. They live in the same apartment building – DeNiro on one floor and McDormand on another. They've been seeing one another for several years now and they've become comfortable with each other. But LaMarca (De Niro) is closed off emotionally, not talking to Michelle (McDormand) about his job or his past. So she starts to question whether she is wasting her time with him. She needs more of an emotional commitment from her mate.

McDormand is perfect for this role. She's rather plain and anonymous looking. You might not think twice about her if you saw her on the street. Her Michelle hasn't been asking for much out of life, but she's nonetheless strong and intelligent and compassionate. Admittedly, the relationship between LaMarca and Michelle isn't exactly the kind of material that convinces teenagers (a major part of the movie-going audience) to fork over the price of admission. So it's understandable that the filmmakers failed to take greater advantage of their movie's greatest assets. But it's disappointing nonetheless.

In lieu of more De Niro and McDormand, the camera keeps returning to the decaying Long Beach Boardwalk. It serves as a clear metaphor for LaMarca's own neglected family life. But director Michael Caton-Jones (who directed This Boy's Life and Rob Roy) is afraid to get dirty. He's generally content with long shots, particularly of the Boardwalk's decrepit gambling hall. He's more concerned with pretentiously creating metaphors than with making the world of his movie come to life. Caton-Jones and screenwriter Hixon do something remarkable: they take a story culled from real experience and make it seem contrived and artificial.

[rating: 2 of 4 stars]