City by the Sea (R)
City by the Sea is a plodding cop drama with inspired performances that make it more of an actor's movie than a film that audiences will talk about for days after seeing it. New York City homicide detective Vincent LaMarca (Robert DeNiro) sees his own troubled childhood reflected in the life of his neglected and drug-addicted son Joey (James Franco), who slips into a head-on collision with his absentee father when he kills a drug dealer in self-defense.
The city by the sea of the film's title is Long Beach, New York -- known as Brooklyn's "outpatient by the sea" -- for which the Jersey Shore's now-faded Asbury Park served as the shooting location of a once-bustling seaside resort now suffering from abandonment and neglect. The melancholy milieu echoes the devastation of family that the LaMarcas have suffered.
When we first see Joey LaMarca, he's wandering a deserted beach boardwalk trying to sell a guitar so he can cop the drugs that will pacify his tweaking body. James Franco, who deservedly won a Best Actor Golden Globe award and an Emmy nomination for his characterization of TNT's James Dean, is one of those young actors who, like Martin Sheen, seems to come directly from the '50s landscape of American teen rebellion and carries with it Dean's knowing-and-internalized attack on the hypocrisy around him.
Both Joey and Vincent have closed themselves off from emotional commitment. Vincent dates his downstairs neighbor Michelle (Frances McDormand), whom he dutifully picks up from her Times Square job every night, but never discloses anything of his turbulent past for fear of having her judge him.
When Vincent finally succumbs to Michelle's pressure to air his dirty laundry, she predictably finds it all too much to swallow and confirms Vincent's fears by making roads out of the relationship. This trend is doubly reinforced in hypocrisy when Michelle seizes blame against Vincent after he turns his abandoned grandson over to the care of a city social worker. Eliza Dushku (best known for the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer) gives a substantial performance as Gina, Joey's drug-tempted girlfriend and mother to their baby boy.
The movie comes together in one scene between Vincent and his son after Joey calls his father to arrange a meeting to hash things out. Vincent intends to bring his son in for the crime he's admitted to committing while Joey is looking for some kind of apology or sign that his father understands him for the person he is. It's a beautiful scene for the way in which the characters change subjects, attempting to read each other's subtext without offending the other. When Joey asks his father whether he believes him as a cop or as his father, Victor is unprepared to answer. It's a sad state of affairs that too many parents put themselves in with their children -- refusing to come clean.
-- Cole Smithey