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City by the Sea

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2002 1 Jan
City by the Sea
from Film Forum, 02/07/02

Michael Caton-Jones directs Robert DeNiro as—Is this a first?—a cop! In City by the Sea, the twist is that DeNiro investigates a crime in which the culprit might be his own son. Should justice or fatherly compassion prevail? Lauded newcomer James Franco, Golden Globe-winner for his portrayal of James Dean last year, stars as the son.

from Film Forum, 09/12/02

In City by the Sea, a dramatic thriller based (very loosely) on true events, Robert De Niro takes on one of the more understated roles of his career. He plays Vincent LaMarca, a well-respected investigator trying to redeem his family's reputation. Vincent's father was executed for a murder conviction, and while Vincent questions the truth of this verdict, he is haunted by the scandal. Even as he dedicates his life to justice in his community, his neglect of his own son, Joey (James Franco), brings the old ghost back. Joey, separated from his father after his parents' painful divorce, plunges into drug-addiction and despair, and soon he finds himself accused of killing a policeman. As the cops close in, Vincent finds his loyalties divided, and he tries to make amends with his son before it is too late.

Director Michael Caton-Jones (Rob Roy) is not new to father-son dramas. In fact, he got excellent work out of De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio in This Boy's Life. Here, he avoids over-stylizing the tense proceedings and lets the actors develop believable, memorable characters. De Niro is especially good, making Vincent a man burdened by regret, slow to share his secrets, and afraid of the commitment required to make a family work. His bitter ex-wife (Patty Lupone) makes matters worse, but the care and sympathy he finds in the heart of a new flame (Frances McDormand) just might motivate him to do the right thing. Franco is impressive as the frightened, nervous, drug-addicted Joey, playing him with convincing weariness and desperation. Nevertheless, McDormand almost steals the movie out from under both lead actors, taking another small, forgettable part and transforming it, as she did in Almost Famous, into a vital character.

Unfortunately, the film stumbles in the final frantic moments. When father and son finally reach their crucial confrontation, the screenwriter loses faith in the actions of the characters and gives Vincent a long flurry of sentimental words that even the great Robert De Niro cannot convincingly pull off. An otherwise compelling human drama falls apart. (My full review is at Looking Closer.)

Other religious media critics were perplexed by the film, troubled at its dark visions of the wages of sin, yet impressed by its emphasis on family bonds. Most give the film good marks for its strong themes.

Loren Eaton (Focus on the Family) writes, "Like an unscrupulous and half-trained surgeon, City by the Sea correctly identifies the cancers causing familial suffering. Then it proceeds to use a dull, rusty pocketknife to extract the diseased cells. Emotionally grueling scenes … are de riguer, rendering the movie's 'happy twist' at the end hopelessly unconvincing." Megan Basham (Christian Spotlight) says, "City by the Sea is not a bad movie, but … with a little more focus, it could have been a great one."

Eric Rice (Movieguide) asks, "So what caught me by surprise? The believable way director Caton-Jones reveals the interwoven pain of these lives. The action fades into the background as the viewer is drawn into the life of the tortured men, hoping they can somehow overcome their demons and get a second chance at life and family. The ending is warm and hope-filled without being too sappy."

But Anne Navarro (Catholic News) disagrees, saying that the film "clumsily conveys that each individual, no matter what his past may be riddled with, ultimately must take responsibility for his own actions and forge a better life. Respectable performances rise above the clichéd script, but the movie's sluggish pace and the predictable plotting diminish what could have been a more dramatic and compelling film."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) was impressed with the legendary lead: "Robert De Niro takes a low-key, naturalistic approach to his role of Vincent. Except for an emotionally overblown climax which doesn't quite ring true, he gives a balanced introspective performance."

Mainstream critics hailed McDormand and Franco, but had differing opinions on how this De Niro performance compares to his past work. Andrew Sarris (New York Observer) says, "It's worth seeing … for the varied subtleties of De Niro's acting." Robert Koehler (Variety) says, "De Niro infuses his familiar NYC cop identity with a feeling of near-exhaustion and emotional fatigue, the outward face of a man who has been privately suffering for years."

But Brian Miller (Seattle Weekly) was too distracted by De Niro's current physique to have much to say about his performance: "Will daddy bring his neglected boy to justice? Can he protect his kid from trigger-happy cops? A better question is, will the corpulent De Niro suffer a stroke on-screen?" But he praises McDormand: "Her usual intelligence outshines everyone else on-screen; she's like some alien visitor from a much, much better movie."

David Denby (New Yorker) praises the performance: "[De Niro's] underplaying shows the kind of balance and lightness gained from long experience with 'dark' material." That, he argues, is still not enough. "After the complex buildup of tensions, the last ten minutes of the movie are a comic-pathetic letdown. Even De Niro's discipline and skill can't save lines that should never have been spoken in the first place."

from Film Forum, 09/19/02

Holly McClure (Crosswalk) turned in a review of City by the Sea this week, praising it for its "unique story about parenting that deals with themes of forgiveness, parental responsibility, unconditional love for your children, the importance of family and dealing with the past to be able to go on with the future." (Earlier reviews here.)