by the Sea
review by Gregory Avery, 6 September 2002
How many times can Robert De Niro
play a cop? "I dunno what else to do but be a cop," his character
says at one point in City by the Sea, where he is once again
playing a police detective, and, once again, he is our stolid vessel
of justice, his grave face flickering with signs of introspection.
Pauline Kael wrote how, after seeing Awakenings in 1991, De
Niro seemed to be doing the same things over and over again, and, in
the last 10 years since then, with few exceptions (his amiably
scruffy, then suddenly explosive, appearance in Jackie Brown;
the clownish gangster in Analyze This), those words seem to
have been prescient.
Yet, De Niro manages to squeeze out
some fresh juice from what one expects to be a standard role. Here,
he plays Vince LaMarca, a New York City police detective who is
assigned to investigate a murder that occurred in Long Beach, near
the once-thriving boardwalk and casino that have now become deserted
and frightfully gone to seed. The victim, a drug dealer, was killed
by Joey (James Franco), who is Vince's son by a previous marriage,
and whom he has barely seen, if at all, during the past 14 years.
Vince's attempts to bring the lad in "safe," without the use of any
force, cause a whole number of bad things to tumble out of the past
back into the open -- how Vince's own father was himself convicted,
and executed, for a murder, and the ugly circumstances that caused
him to leave his former wife (Patti LuPone, in a stringent, and
excellent, performance) and young son. And Vince has wanted none of
this to cloud the relationship he now has, a caring and loving one,
with a new woman, Michelle (Frances McDormand).
While the film is based on actual
events (written about in an "Esquire" magazine article, "Mark of a
Murderer," by Mike McAlary), the director Michael Caton-Jones works
to elevate the material from becoming dimensionally flat (much as he
did previously in the comedy Doc Hollywood), mostly by
getting good work from the performers. James Russo -- who did the
miraculous, last year, with his brilliant lead performance in the
cable film James Dean -- seems to have frozen and emaciated
himself to play Joey, who's chasing after dreams of cleaning himself
up as a junkie and doing a fix-all relocation to Key West, Florida.
Russo plays Joey so that we can see a certain quality in him that
would inspire us to genuinely want to haul him out of the state that
he's in, even though one look at Joey's hollowed-out eyes tells us
the attempt could very well be futile. And De Niro fills out his
character in the second half of the film with unexpected flashes of
parental anguish and rue. Vince is essentially a pragmatist, but he
tries to reestablish contact with his son, much as he would try
talking a criminal into disarming himself and turning himself over
to custody rather than doing something rash. When he sees Joey
suddenly, at the last minute, slip out of his grasp (a moment
greatly aided by some excellent cinematography by Karl Walter
Lindenlaub), age and desolation register nakedly on De Niro's face.
He becomes a weathered father and a weathered man, blasted through
and through. It's an aspect we haven't seen in his work before, and
The film's later sections unravel
into standard, predictable stuff, but the picture sticks with an
ending that is more dramatically credible than a sop to the
audience. All in all, City by the Sea emerges damp, but
Robert De Niro
R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires parent
or adult guardian..