Conflicts of interest
The dramatic City by the Sea is saved by some fine acting
A young junkie breaks into a veterinary clinic to steal some drugs. While he’s at it, he also swipes a pistol and a small stuffed animal. The drugs turn out to be worthless on the street, but the handgun and the cuddly toy are pointed emblems of the youth’s confusion—and of the weirdly mismatched forms of drama in City by the Sea, the film in which they all appear.
The young man in question (played by James Franco) is the estranged son of a veteran homicide detective (played by Robert De Niro), and a key premise of City by the Sea is that the father finds himself investigating a case in which the prime suspect turns out to be his son. But that’s not the half of it; this is also a story about fathers and sons and neglected family relationships, and the crime story part of it keeps giving way to extended scenes of tortuously tangled domestic drama.
There’s something admirably venturesome in this picture’s attempt to combine film noir with psychodrama, social commentary and multi-generational melodrama. But even though the story is based on actual events (first reported in an Esquire article in 1997), Ken Hixon’s screenplay hypes up the dramatic stakes perilously close to the point of tabloid-style absurdity. It’s very much to the credit of De Niro and company (and of director Michael Caton-Jones) that they have wrung so much credible emotion out of a story that gets less and less credible with each new twist.
De Niro is especially good as Vincent LaMarca, a good cop and a likeable guy who has isolated himself in a kind of emotional hiding from the tragedies and misadventures that have beset three generations of his family—and a fourth, after he learns that Joey (Franco) has a son too. Patti LuPone is stolid as the angrily withdrawn and terminally disappointed woman who is Joey’s mother and Vincent’s ex-wife, and Franco is quietly and thoroughly effective as a kid who is both good-natured and seriously messed-up.
Curiously, however, the pivotal performance comes from Frances McDormand, who plays the tough-minded neighbor lady with whom Vincent is having a steady but somewhat non-committal affair. Her ardent, deftly understated intelligence serves as an anchor of sanity and insight within the luridly melodramatic excesses in the LaMarcas’ family history.
Just for the record: Vincent’s father was a convicted murderer; domestic violence ended Vincent’s marriage; Joey has killed a drug dealer; he is suspected of killing Vincent’s partner also; Gina (Eliza Dushku), Joey’s former partner in crack, won’t let him visit their small son; Gina dumps the son at Vincent’s place and departs; etc., etc. The nastiness piles up in ways that even Jerry Springer would scoff at.
And that’s without really touching on the gloomy, brusque crime story stuff in City by the Sea. George Dzundza is heftily impulsive as Vincent’s doomed partner, and William Forsythe plays a local thug with menacing zest, doing his devilishly smart, wacked-out degenerate schemer as well as ever.
And then there’s the ravaged setting, a gone-to-seed-and-rust Atlantic shore resort strip, complete with abandoned casinos and sidewalk entrepreneurs.
The title (which refers to Long Beach on Long Island) and cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub’s lyrically sleazy location photography may be intended to indicate that urban decay and the LaMarca family’s poisonous lapses have something to say to each other. But by the time Vincent learns he’s become a grandfather, the thing has gone around the melodramatic block a few times too many.