When the body of a drug dealer washes up on the Jersey shore, it's just another day on the job for Detective Vincent LaMarca (Robert DeNiro) and his partner Reg (George Dzundza, "Instinct") until they trace the victim to Long Beach, LaMarca's former home. A visit to his former precinct gives a chance to catch up with old colleagues and pick up the latest leads, one of which, a Chevy Nova's licence number, leads to Vincent's estranged son Joey in "City by the Sea."
DeNiro finally returns to form in his best dramatic outing since 1995 while up and comer James Franco ("Spider-Man") proves his Golden Globe win for last year's James Dean TV biopic was no fluke. Screenwriter Ken Hixon ("Inventing the Abbotts") has fleshed out the Esquire article ('Mark of a Murderer' by Michael McAlary) which first brought to light LaMarca's amazing cross-generational saga.
LaMarca leads a singular, routine existence. Girlfriend Michelle (Frances McDormand, "The Man Who Wasn't There") who lives one floor below his Manhattan walkup dares to ask 'What's next?' one night in bed and Vincent replays their past 24 hours. When he discovers his son is a murder suspect, his emotional withdrawal prods Michelle to demand he open up to her. She gets far more than she bargained for when Vincent releases a torrent of pain, beginning with his abandonment by his own father, executed for a bungled kidnapping death, the outburst of violence that ended his marriage and the resulting difficulties that caused him to withdraw from his own son's life. His story gets even more complex when, about 24 hours later, he discovers he's the grandfather of Angelo and is left to care for the child by its terrified mother Gina (Eliza Dushku, "The New Guy"). Then his partner is killed and the murder weapon is covered in Joey's prints.
'It doesn't matter if your father was a cop or a murderer - some kids' dads aren't coming home,' Vincent tells Michelle about his incredible history, which is repeating as he speaks. Director Michael Caton-Jones (1997's "The Jackal") evenly deals the father and son parallels as DeNiro works with the complexities of shaping his character via a trio of generations outside his own. DeNiro comes to full boil delivering an emotional plea to Joey to turn himself in. The actor takes the lid off of long withheld feelings for the boy he left behind. Franco has the hollow, dead-eyed look of a hardcore junkie, but desperation fuels jittery pleas for help, first from the mother (Patty LuPone, "Heist") who's believed in him one time too many, then from a dealer who declares him a dead man.
Support is able, beginning with McDormand's strong turn as the woman who makes her lover face himself. Dushku is a far cry from her "New Guy" cheerleader with this performance as an ex-junkie trying to make a go of it for her child. Anson Mount ("Crossroads") is fine as an upstanding young cop who helps LaMarca when the rest of the police force has branded him as guilty as it has his son. William Forsythe ("Blue Streak") gives another patented bad guy turn as Snake.
Caton-Jones casts the city of Long Beach as a symbolic representation of the lives of the LaMarca men. Vincent remembers a city of the 1950's, all shiny and new, as he and Reg drive through what now resembles a war zone. The film recalls "Requiem for a Dream," where Coney Island junkies, like Joey, dream of a better life in Florida. Cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub ("The Jackal") and production designer (Jane Musky, "Finding Forrester") nicely contrast the expanses of the run down seaside community with LaMarca's home in bustling Manhattan. The characters in "City by the Sea" do not appear to live on Hollywood sets, but in the real, gritty world (Art direction by Darrell K. Keister ("Finding Forrester"), set decoration by Lynn Tonnessen, costume by Richard Owings). John Murphy's ("Snatch") original music lends an air of nostalgic melancholy.
"City by the Sea" wraps a little too neatly for the messy real life tangle which it documents, but a strong sense of a particular world coupled with some fine acting make it a story with staying power.
Vincent LaMarca (Robert DeNiro) is a street-wise New York City cop who has long been estranged from his only son. Joey LaMarca (James Franco), without the benefit of his father's counsel for most of his life, is a down and out junkie whose only goal is to just get his next fix. When he gets into a fight with and kills drug dealer Picasso, his dad is drawn into the investigation and Vincent has the chance to help his son in "City by the Sea."
Director Michael Caton-Jones adapts the true-life story, from the magazine article Mark of a Murderer by the late Michael McAlary, about Vincent LaMarca, the NYC police officer whose son, Joey, is accused of murdering a pond scum drug dealer. At first, Vincent only knows the perpetrator as Joey Novas, a homeless street guy who gets his name from the car he drives, a Chevy Nova. As the detective closes in on the killer, he is shocked to learn that the suspect is none other than his own son.
Vincent, it turns out, has a past life that he feels may be a contributing factor in his son's violent behavior. Angelo LaMarca, Vincent's father, was convicted of murdering a kidnap victim, a small baby, and was put to death for his crime in the 50's. These events have impacted Vincent ever since. Now, when he learns that his son may also be a killer, he fears that there is a genetic connection and the LaMarca men are destined to be murderers. As Vincent tries to get to his son before the other investigators, his partner, Reg Duffy (George Dzundza), is gunned down, apparently while trying to capture Joey. The younger LaMarca is not just a sociopath, he may be a cop killer, too.
While much of "City by the Sea" revolves around Joey and his life in the streets, the focus of the film is centered on DeNiro's Vincent. The elder LaMarca has, for most of his life, been plagued with the memories of his father's crime. When Vincent's wife divorces him because of his violent temper, he is convinced that the badness in his father is a part of his own makeup. The news of Joey's violence convinces Vincent that the sins of the father are visited upon the son and that the LaMarca men are the product of a bad seed. This psychological turmoil, much more than the manhunt to bring a killer to justice, anchors the film and its main characters.
Robert DeNiro, though playing a role that he has many times before as a cop hunting down a killer, puts a credible, conflicted spin on his Vincent character. The inner dual that Vincent now fights, with his son's "return" to him, is vocalized when Joey asks him, "Are you a cop or my father?" "I'm both," says the troubled detective as he struggles between his loyalty to his son and his duty as a cop. There is vulnerability within DeNiro's usual tough guy persona that I haven't seen from the actor before. There are times, in scenes between Vincent and Joey, where the elder LaMarca bares his soul to his son. The conflict within the man is palpable as he strives to, finally, do what is right as he copes with the multi-generational father-son issues.
James Franco, who won a Golden Globe award for his TV portrayal as the title character in "James Dean," propels himself to an acting A-list as junkie Joey LaMarca. Franco spends a good deal of his screen time alone as he tries to score dope for his habit while dreaming of getting away from it all in Key West, Florida, the memorable place where he vacationed with his family so many years before. Like Dustin Hoffman in "Midnight Cowboy," the Key has taken on mystical proportions for Joey as he really believes that all his problems will be over if reaches this exotic destination. Franco puts dimension into the role of a lonely and confused young man who never understood why his father left him.
"City by the Sea" is DeNiro and Franco's film but there are a couple of supporting roles that are notable. Eliza Dushku gives a solid perf as Joey's ex-girlfriend and the mother of his son, Angelo (named after Vincent's notorious father). Unfortunately, the actress falls out of the picture too soon. There is real chemistry between Dushku and DeNiro that made me want more. Veteran character actor George Dzundza fully develops his Reg Duffy role as Vincent's partner and, later, a victim, too. Totally wasted (and second billed) is Frances McDormand as Vincent's sort of girlfriend and bedmate, Michelle. The artificial character is merely a plot device to put a bit of humanity into Vincent to show him as a caring consort. William Forsythe, as Harley driving, sawed-off shotgun toting, drug dealing bad guy, Spyder, is along for the ride, so to speak, to introduce...well, I'm not sure what he introduces, except to represent vague menace and violence.
There is already controversy brewing over this adaptation of the Michael McAlary article. The "based on a true story" handle will generate lots of discussion as it comes out that Vincent LaMarca was retired from the force at the time of the murder and did not participate in the hunt for Joey. There are a number of instances of artistic license being exercised throughout the story as screenwriter Ken Hixon punches things up to give a typical Hollywood sheen to the crime story. The liberties that Tinseltown takes when embellishing any true event work should be something the average moviegoer is used to. The main character depicted in "City by the Sea" help take your mind away from the manipulation of facts.
This is an actors' film that showcases Robert DeNiro in a different light than we have seen in some time. James Franco stands toe-to-toe with the megastar and gives a strong, believable performance. These two men are the reason to see "City by the Sea." Helmer Michael Caton-Jones and his behind the camera team provide solid, though not really remarkable, techs for the film. The choice of location - the rundown area of Long Beach, Long Island - lends a different, decaying look to the film. I give it a B-.
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