City 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 it's welcome.

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 afloat.

Directed by:
Michael Caton-Jones

Starring:
Robert De Niro
Frances McDormand
James Franco
Patti LuPone
Eliza Dushku
William Forsythe
George Dzundza

Written by:
Ken Hixon

Rating:
R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires parent
or adult guardian..

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