City By The Sea

#His name is Bobby, ah-a-ah, Bobby De Niro, ah-a, he's a really nice person, and a really good actor#

Released in 2003, certified UK-15. Reviewed on 21 Jan 2003 by Drew Tavendale
City By The Sea image

Before talking about City by the Sea, let me just tell you this: Broxburn-born director Michael Caton-Jones' latest film is worth seeing for De Niro's performance alone. Not that it's his best. Far from it. But De Niro, an actor who can out-perform most others simply by being in shot, has suffered from a paucity of decent roles in the last few years, and for a De Niro fan it is a true joy to see more than a hint of the astounding performances that proved him to be one of the greatest actors of all time.

The city of the title is Long Beach, a former holiday resort a short drive from New York City (which the inhabitants of Long Beach refer to as 'The City by the River') The film begins with a glorious Technicolor clip of Long Beach in its heyday, all bustling crowds and families having fun. This dissolves into the modern-day reality, a bleak and depressing town in which the crowds have long-departed, and there looks little hope of them ever returning. Broken windows, deserted factories and hopeless people now populate this once fun-filled city, and it looks, as De Niro's character describes it, "like the Serbian army just came through". You can't help but expect to hear a howling wind and see a tumbleweed roll into shot. However, the desolate city is an excellent visual metaphor for the broken lives and shattered hopes, and provides a believable background to the issues the film covers.

The story centres around Manhattan homicide detective, Vincent La Marca (De Niro), his troubled past, and his relationship, or lack thereof, with his drug-addicted son Joey (James Franco, perhaps familiar to you as Harry Osborne in Spider-Man). La Marca is a successful policeman, with a good standing in the force, and a solid relationship with girlfriend and neighbour Michelle (Frances McDormand). Underneath this, though, is a past he has tried to keep secret - his father was a convicted murderer who was executed while Vincent was a child, he beat his wife, and then walked out on her and his young son.

City By The Sea image

When La Marca's son is implicated, first in the murder of a drug-dealer, and then in the murder of his partner (George Dzundza), he is forced to face his past, and all the secrets come out, threatening his relationship with Michelle. Returning to Long Beach for the first time in many years to try and solve the case, Vincent is reminded of a lot of places and faces that he thought he had left well behind him.

City by the Sea starts promisingly, but too many elements are introduced - Joey's struggling girlfriend (a perfunctory turn by Eliza Dushku), the tabloid press delving into La Marca's past, attempting to tar him with the same brush as his father, and a deteriorating relationship with his boss - too many for the film to handle. It simply feels too full. That said, the main themes - of the conflict between duties as a father and as a policeman and the effect of environment and heredity on character - are strong and generally well-handled.

This film could have been better, though, if Caton-Jones had made more use of his fine cast. The most extreme aspect of this is when we see Vincent sitting on a park bench, ruminating over all that has happened, and trying to work out what to do next. It would have been perfectly clear to the audience what was going through the character's mind anyway, but the director has chosen to have an audio montage of dialogue clips from earlier in the film to let us know what he is thinking, a technique which is about as subtle as the bomb which the Enola Gay dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. Indeed, it is as if the director doesn't trust his players to express the emotions of their characters. Given that it is De Niro in this scene, though, and that there are few better at conveying emotional anguish without doing anything much at all, and without any 'help', Caton-Jones is guilty of a crime.

Some of the most satisfying moments in the film come when De Niro and McDormand are on screen together, two supremely gifted actors who have no need to do anything much to prove how good they are, and the audience can just sit back and enjoy. It is a shame that McDormand is so under-utilised.

Franco also acquits himself well, and he gives hints of being a talent to watch out for in the future. The scenes between himself and De Niro rise above the (at times) poor dialogue and heavy-handed direction.

On the face of it, this is an adequate 'fix your mistakes before time runs out' melodrama, but the performances from the leads, and the sheer joy of seeing De Niro really act again, lift it above mere mediocrity. On the basis of this, and if anyone will listen to me, City by the Sea gets 4 out of 5 Combined Goodness Units.

Michael Caton-Jones
Cast list:
Robert De Niro (Vincent La Marca)
James Franco (Joey La Marca)
Frances McDormand (Michelle)