In “City by the Sea,” Manhattan police detective Vincent LaMarca (Robert De Niro) is a tough cop who, years ago, walked out on his wife and young son. The movie reminds us of this approximately every 30 seconds.
“You walked out on us!” someone will yell. “Are you going to walk out on me, the way you walked out on your family all those years ago?” someone else shouts. There is a lot of shouting in this movie. I don’t know how LaMarca puts up with it, especially when it’s all highly accusatory and aimed at him. I wouldn’t yell at Robert De Niro, I know that much.
It’s what stops this from being an excellent film, the fact that it chooses one note on the piano and taps it unrelentingly for the entire running time. The movie’s point is that viewers ought not walk out on their wives and sons. One has to wonder what sort of abandonment issues the screenwriter needs to work out.
LaMarca is investigating the death of a drug dealer when he discovers the primary suspect is his son Joey (James Franco), from whom he has been estranged since the aforementioned walking-out-on-his-family incident. He would like to help the boy, but Joey, skinny, filthy and strung out, wants nothing to do with the old man. Joey’s mother (Patti LuPone) is at her wit’s end and urges her ex-husband to stop being a cop and start being a father.
After going through the Family Crisis ClichÃ©s, the film moves on to Cop Movie ClichÃ©s. LaMarca gets taken off the case — even slamming his gun down on the sergeant’s desk in protest — but continues to work it anyway. A cop’s failure to wait for backup to arrive leads to dire consequences. Voices from LaMarca’s past swirl around his head nightmarishly. At one point, a low-life says to someone he thinks may have killed his drug-dealer friend, “My associate, seems he ain’t breathin’ too good no more. But you wouldn’t know anything about that, right?” With dialogue like that, you expect Humphrey Bogart to appear, or at least to see a copyright date of 1940 at the end of the film.
The acting, without exception, is terrific. De Niro elaborates on his one-dimensional character, giving him more life and depth than he deserves. Frances McDormand, always a pleasure to watch, plays LaMarca’s long-suffering girlfriend with panache. James Franco is startlingly gaunt and sickly as Joey LaMarca, eliciting sympathy for his horrific circumstances.
In smaller roles, Eliza Dushku is solid as Joey’s girlfriend, and Patti LuPone tries her best with the generic dialogue she’s saddled with.
Director Michael Caton-Jones (“Rob Roy,” “This Boy’s Life”) and cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub give the film a somber, bleak feel. Numerous images of the run-down Long Island community of Long Beach are used as metaphor for LaMarca’s crumbled family life. These are effective as far as they go. The film just needed some better writing to really make it soar.
C+ (1 hr., 48 min.; )