City By the Sea (6/10)

 Copyright © 2003 by Tony Medley


If there’s one more movie about fathers and sons this year it will qualify as an epidemic.  City by the Sea presents a starker contrast than Road to Perdition.  All the characters are affected by Vincent LaMarca’s (Robert De Niro) relationships with his deceased father and his son.

 LaMarca is a detective with 20 years experience. His son, Joey Nova (James Franco), a former standout high school quarterback, has become a drugged out loser. Joey blames his father because LaMarca abandoned him and his mother, LaMarca’s former wife, Maggie (Patty Lupone), when Joey was a child, an act that drastically affects all their lives and comes to fruition when Joey kills a drug dealer at the beginning of the film.  Before Joey is known as the suspect, LaMarca is assigned to the case.

 Drug dealer boss, Snake (convincingly played by Brian Taratina), finds out that Joey killed his dealer and goes looking for him.  So Joey is hiding from both the police and a bad guy (and Snake is a deliciously bad guy with absolutely no conscience) who wants to kill him. Things go from bad to worse for both Joey and Vincent.

 The script for City by the Sea was written by Ken Hixon, adapted from an article by Mark McAlary in Esquire Magazine, based on a true story, and is tightly directed by Michael Caton-Jones. Vincent is a difficult role because it doesn’t require prodigious emoting, like King Lear, just sensitive, understated acting.  De Niro renders it expertly. Better, everyone in the film meets his standard.  A particular standout is Lupone, who sizzles the few times she’s on screen.

 Franco, who has been called the “new James Dean,” maybe because, well, he won an award for his portrayal of the old James Dean in the movie bio last year and bore a remarkable resemblance to the original, plays Joey as Dean might have.  This is a quirky role, the type for which Dean was known in his short, three-film career.

 LaMarca’s girl friend, Michelle (Frances McDormand), brings an equilibrium to the film, showing where LaMarca has become so self-absorbed he has damaged not only the lives of his former wife and son, but his own as well.  The talents of McDormand seem wasted in this role, one of the least demanding in the film.  Casting her in this part is like hiring Abraham Lincoln to run a McDonald’s.  Lupone’s part, consisting of substantially fewer lines, is meatier and she handles it well enough to win an award.

 Watching De Niro and Franco spar is like seeing Andre Agassi play Leyton Hewitt in the U.S. Open; the old master with the emerging star.  Unlike tennis, there are no losers here; and the audience is the big winner. The scenes between the two are electric.  While the script for City By The Sea is a bit too long, somewhat slow in parts, and fairly predictable, the acting is so good that this is worth watching. 

 The End