starring Robert De Niro, Frances McDormand, James Franco, Eliza Dushku
screenplay by Ken Hixon, based on an article by Michael McAlary
directed by Michael Caton-Jones
by Walter Chaw Leaden with mock gravitas and embarrassing aspirations to the Shakespearean, Michael Caton-Jones's aggressively uninteresting City by the Sea is a purported true story (based on an article by Michael McAlary) that proves to be just another by-the-numbers police procedural crunched with an abortive middle-age romance and a stultifying Oedipal complication. Opening with archive newsreel footage of Long Beach as a place of fun and hope before juxtaposing the burnt-out crack-house dead wonderland of the Long Beach of just a couple of years ago (a conceit carried out with far more grace in Stacy Peralta's Dogtown and Z-Boys), the picture quickly reveals itself to be infatuated with a certain kind of dramatic irony in which the stock characters are unaware that they are clumsy allegorical pawns in a metaphorical landscape.
Joey LaMarca (James Franco) is a junkie loser who, in a case of drug-assisted self-defense, ices a drug dealer whose disquiet corpse washes up in Joey's father's--Detective Vincent LaMarca's (Robert De Niro)--precinct. This highly unlikely bit of business leads to the introduction of Vincent's partner Reg (George Dzundza, who's made a career out of playing second fiddles and dead partners), and Vincent's sordid back-story, which includes a child-murdering father sent to the chair back when Long Beach was beautiful. The setting is asked to be the visual representation of the decay of father-son relationships stretching into eternity; the question of whether Cain's transgression is an indelible mark on the soul, passed from generation to generation, finds a weak foundation here in what is essentially a broad and laggard melodrama packed with unconvincing highs and unmoving lows.
De Niro's performance is a low-grade amble that speaks more to boredom than Method while the fantastic Frances McDormand is utterly wasted as Vincent's weary girlfriend Michelle: She serves mainly to highlight the many ways an actor can transcend her material rather than be lulled to disinterest by it. (The less fantastic but pretty Eliza Dushku turns in what is easily her best performance to date as Joey's reformed-junkie love interest.) City by the Sea is a terrible movie all around, one with a visual philosophy that seems to be structured around some kind of combination of wet dreariness and vérité jitteriness. It's a caffeine high after three days of wakefulness: muddy, confused, and nauseating in equal measure.
In tone and intent, City by the Sea reminds a little bit of Phil Joanou's underestimated State of Grace (another crime film about prodigal sons in crumbling neighbourhoods), only City by the Sea lacks all conviction in its emotions and understanding of the real value of its surroundings. Without a true evocation of place, an insightful sculpting of character, or an appropriate level of respect for its audience, all attempts at crafting a fable of deconstruction are doomed to Caton-Jones's tired operatic pretensions and City by the Sea's dreadfully misplayed moments. Originally published: September 6, 2002.