City By The Sea (2002) **1/2
Directed by Michael Caton-Jones. Written by Ken Hixon from a 1997 Esquire magazine article, "Mark of a Murderer," by Michael McAlary. Photography, Karl Walter Lindenlaub. Editing, Jim Clark. Production design, Jane Musky. Music, John Murphy.Producers, Brad Grey, Elie Samaha, Michael Caton-Jones, Matthew Baer. Cast: Robert De Niro, Frances McDormand, James Franco, Eliza Dushku, William Forsythe, Anson Mount, Patti LuPone, et al. A Warners release. 108 minutes. R (violence, language)
"City by the Sea" was the name adopted by Long Beach, on Long Island, N.Y. It is played by Asbury Park, N.J. The movie's opening contrasts the heyday of the place, its masses of people, boardwalk, stores, casinos and attractions, with its terrible, depressing dilapidation now. It is both a factual and a symbolic sight.
"City" is a true story. Divorced Long Beach native, now New York City Police Lieutenant Vincent LaMarca (De Niro) had left his wife Maggie (Patti Lupone) and their young son Joey some 14 years ago. Now the adult Joey (James Franco) is a drug addict who is conscious (at least in the movie version) of his miserable state, yet cannot quit. Expectedly, situations like this can be murky, but then the film gets rather confusing. In a dark night, a connection called Snake drives Joey to a dump-like seaside place, to meet dealer Picasso. In a scuffle among the three men, Joey knifes Picasso terminally. As per the movie, it is an accident. As per real life it was not.
Homicide Detective LaMarca is in charge of the case. Picasso's body was found on a Brooklyn beach, i.e. in Vincent's jurisdiction, although the killing took place in Long Beach. In reality, Vince was already retired when those events took place. Still, whatever the liberties taken by the movie, it develops into a real Classical Greek tragedy or the neoclassic French stage-plays by Corneille or Racine in the 17th century. Joey, in hiding, protests his innocence. Not only is the absentee father trying to find and save or salvage his son, but, says Vincent : '' in 59 my old man was executed in Sing-Sing, for murder.'' Angelo LaMarca had kidnapped a child for ransom but the baby died accidentally when left in a car.
Now the curse extends to four generations of that family, from the late abductor Angelo to his son Vincent. who, for unexplained reasons became a top cop (an act of purification?), to Joey, and as later revealed (a surprise for Vince) to the baby son of Joey and Gina, his also druggie companion.(The movie errs by not making clear that the child is named after its great-grandfather.)
Matters get even grimmer. The defunct Picasso's boss, ominous, motorcycle-riding and rather caricatural Spyder (William Forsythe,) is also after Joey. In the process he kills Vincent's friend and partner Reg Duffy (George Dzundza.)
Vincent is a fine, no-nonsense cop. He has a small apartment in a grungy N.Y.C. building, and an ongoing affair with this next-floor neighbor Michelle (Frances McDormand), also a divorcee. Vincent is getting serious about her, but we know frustratingly little about him. He seems to be well-balanced and on the happy side. Generous too. Regularly, and for unclear reasons, he brings gifts of whiskey to a man (whose identity is murky--the super?) stationed by the steps of the apartment house.
The search for Joey, by the police and by his father is one that involves assorted guilts, notably Vincent's. This adds more murk to the story. Vincent had left his wife after assaulting her. He had ignored his boy for years. It is clear that now he feels guilt and is looking for redemption. But what about the past? Is this guilt something new, dormant, or repressed? Its symptoms are now hammered and rehammered within a slow pace which is correct in real life but fatiguing for the movie's audience.
It goes without saying that De Niro can play very well anything, on automatic pilot if need be. McDormand's is a supporting role, but she becomes a literal support to Vincent when Gina (Eliza Dushku) dumps her child on him. Gina is remarkable as she packs a great deal in just a few short appearances.
As Joey, James Franco is pretty good as a human wreck. Early on, everything about his acting reminded me of a James Dean imitation. I later found out that Franco had played the title role in ''James Dean,'' a 2001 TV movie.
The film's somber sights and moods of decay are most effectively produced and photographed. Pruning, re-editing and clarifying it would certainly improve it