September 12, 2002

All Washed Up

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How many Academy Award winners does it take to fill seats in a movie theatre? Better still — how many Academy Award winners does it take to compensate for a poorly written, minimally publicized film?

Two, judging from Michael Caton-Jones’ recently released City by the Sea. Robert DeNiro leads the pack, portraying Vincent LaMarca, a dedicated but solemn New York City cop with a troubled family history. His only attachment is neighbor and girlfriend Michelle, played by Frances McDormand, whom he keeps at arms’ length. When the corpse of a drug dealer washes up under the Brooklyn Bridge, Vincent is lead back to his hidden past, found in the dilapidated boardwalks of Long Beach (the “city by the sea”).

As the investigation progresses, Vincent learns that the prime suspect in the murder is his estranged son Joey (James Franco), the troubled youth who has fallen into a life of drug addiction and crime. As he strives to hunt down his son, Vincent is torn between his identity as a cop and his forgotten obligations as a father. Thankfully the family drama does not end there. Vincent must face the memory of being abandoned by his own father in a murderous scandal … and wait, Joey has a son of his own who he has abandoned in his depraved junkie haze.

Fighting against time, Vincent must strive to reverse the genetically fated course by reuniting with his son as well as bringing him to justice for murder. Among the film’s other warm and fuzzy themes — guns, drug abuse, domestic violence, baby kidnapping, cop killing, capital punishment, and child abandonment. Luckily it’s conveniently packaged in one family line.

The story is based on “Mark of a Murderer,” an Esquire article by Michael McAlary based on a true story. Adapted for film, the screenplay is as pale and lifeless as, well, a body fished out of the Hudson River. Meandering in an endless two hours, the plot can’t quite cut it as a cop thriller or a gritty character drama.

The major downfall: watching two powerful actors, masters of subtlety, be confined by trite and obvious dialogue. McDormand’s character is barely developed beyond the role of the smart, sensitive girlfriend. In her quiet scenes with DeNiro, which should be riveting, we only catch a glimpse of what could be possible between them.

DeNiro himself (fleshier than normal) does not falter as the conflicted, guilty father. Usually a commanding screen presence, even he cannot overcome the mediocrity of the storytelling. In the final scene, in which DeNiro must attempt to redeem the renegade son who has turned his back on the world, the dialogue is clumsy and gushy, leaving the climax empty and emotionless.

As has been the trend recently, this film seems to be another in a line of flops for Hollywood icons. City by the Sea is hardly redemptive on the heals of DeNiro’s Showtime with Eddie Murphy. Al Pacino and Anthony Hopkins have also been putting out less-than-spectacular performances recently, which begs the question –where have all the good movies gone?

Visually, the film has its strengths, set against the bleak backdrop of Long Beach. The opening scenes portray the beach in ’50s era Technicolor dreaminess when it was crowded as a thriving resort destination.

Thus the metaphor is set up — just as Vincent’s childhood playground has become a rundown boardwalk filled with junkies, the destroyed illusions of his father have lead him to the same isolated legacy of abandonment. The hopeless desperation found in Long Beach is the power behind the story. Unfortunately, the modern-day deadbeat dad psychology is beaten to death in a film that cannot support the lows to which its characters sink.

While meant to raise questions about the origins of family violence and parental responsibilities, City by the Sea cannot achieve what it strives to. Apparently no one on the set has heard the old euphemism “show don’t tell.” And while obviously well intentioned, the storytelling should have been trusted to the film’s major strength — the strong and unfortunately untapped cast.

Archived article by Lauren Sommer