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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