Review by Paul Stathakis | 2002

It's all about the father-son dynamic

What would you do if you were a cop and your own son was identified as the prime suspect in a murder? Would you turn him in or would you risk your badge to protect him? Director Michael Caton-Jones’ riveting drama “City by the Sea” places audiences in that exact situation. Academy Award-winner Robert DeNiro stars as Vincent LaMarca, a divorced veteran cop with a mysterious past. Vincent leads a nice, calm life with his girlfriend Michelle (Frances McDormand), who lives in the same apartment complex. Michelle believes she knows everything about Vincent and his personal life until the day she learns that he has a son, Joey (James Franco). Joey is a rebellious street junkie, who borrows money from those close to him to purchase drugs.

As the film progresses, Vincent admits that he hasn’t seen or spoken to his son in fourteen years. But what Vincent doesn’t know is that his son is about to become one of Long Beach’s most wanted criminals. When the police identify Joey as the main suspect in the murder of a drug dealer (who goes by the street name “Picasso”), things heat up as Vincent is removed from the case and ordered to take a ten-day vacation. With time running out, Vincent will have to decide how he’ll approach the situation: as a cop, or as a father.

Many say wine gets better with age and that also seems to be the case with Robert DeNiro. He always finds a way to explore a new side of himself in every one of his films – something that audiences are not accustomed to seeing. In “City by the Sea”, DeNiro is in his purest and most touching state. Anyone used to seeing him throw constant one-liners and play pitiless gangster roles will be shocked, because he’s quite different in this one. He absorbs a great deal of pain, and is filled with regret, which causes him to hesitate in his decisions. This constant indecision makes his character more vulnerable, almost fragile. James Franco is also one of biggest surprises this film offers. He plays the role of Joey, a deteriorating junkie who dreams of venturing to Key West with his girlfriend (Eliza Dushku) and son. Franco is fantastic. Although this type of character isn’t normally likable, Franco’s portrayal manipulates the audience, instantly gaining their sympathy and pity. Although some could argue that “City by the Sea” gets too preachy as it advances. I felt it was the intention of the director and the writer to create a touching, moving film.

I had a few problems with “City by the Sea”. One of them is that it neglects several of its key actors. I felt that Frances McDormand was miscast. Her character lacked depth and wasn’t relevant to the story in any way. She is physically present, but does not attract much attention. Sadly, even though she has a few cute moments with DeNiro and is a fine actress, her name is useless on this poster. Another problem with “City” is its length. It needlessly drags sometimes and there were several scenes that could have been easily removed. It was also obvious that some scenes were added just to fill time.

The dialogue exchanges are often intense and well-written. There’s a beautiful scene where Vincent meets with Joey where they used to watch planes fly by together when Joey was a child. Joey asks,”What are you, a cop or my father?” and Vincent firmly answers, “I’m both”. Certain scenes were powerful and effective, combining performance with dialogue in an exquisite manner, which I loved.

Bottom line: If you’re expecting action, stay away from “City by the Sea”. This film is more of a drama and only delivers a little action towards the end. “City by the Sea” presents all viewers with an awkward father-son relationship that is quite powerful. DeNiro and Franco both make the trip worth it, even though the film is far from being flawless. It’s an enjoyable cop drama which focuses more on emotions as opposed to breathtaking car chases, shootouts, or the classic hero/villain scenario. I recommend it.


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