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'City by the Sea'

'City by the Sea' can't get close to drama of cop's real story

Friday, September 06, 2002

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In "City by the Sea," a cop's 43-year-old girlfriend (Frances McDormand) says she doesn't want to marry him -- she just wants to know him. However, when he pulls out some photos and shares his unflattering family history, she's taken aback. And there are a couple more surprises or outright shocks still to come.

'City By The Sea'

RATING: R for language, drug use and some violence

STARRING: Robert De Niro, Frances McDormand, James Franco

DIRECTOR: Michael Caton-Jones

WEB SITE: citybythesea.


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The cop is a respected New York homicide detective named Vincent LaMarca (Robert De Niro) who finds himself sandwiched between a father sentenced to Sing Sing and a child wanted for murder. His son, Joey (James Franco), is a drug addict who has been estranged from his father and who has exhausted the patience of his divorced and still bitter mother (Patti LuPone).

Vince lives in Manhattan but his former wife and son are still in Long Beach, Long Island, a once-thriving beach community now in tatters. Empty funhouses along the boardwalk have degenerated into graffiti-covered, fetid shooting galleries for junkies. When a drug deal involving Joey and a low-life pal goes bad, Joey stabs a man and the corpse washes up in Vince's jurisdiction.

After carefully constructing a life revolving around routine, Vince suddenly finds himself in a topsy-turvy tug of war between his past and present, between being a police officer and a father. The struggle between the "real me" and the one who hits his wife or breaks into a vet's office for the drugs is also explored.

"City by the Sea," directed by Michael Caton-Jones, was inspired by a 1997 Esquire article called "Mark of a Murderer" by Mike McAlary. In the real story, the cop was retired. The detail about his father going to prison, which I thought had been invented, turns out to be true. In fact, the real cop had polio as a child and his dad bathed him and rubbed down his legs every morning before he went to work, which makes it an even sadder story.

So why, with all this rich material -- real and otherwise -- does "City by the Sea" have so many dead spots? Without such a good cast, including Franco who earned kudos for portraying James Dean in a TV movie, "City by the Sea" might seem laughable. Without its basis in fact, it might seem preposterous.

"City by the Sea" opens with vintage footage of beach-besotted crowds from a time when the resort town and Vince's life were thriving and happy. Although it attempts to explore thorny relationships between fathers and sons (the theme of the summer of 2002), it never gets beneath the skin of Vince's character. We see a picture of Joey in his glory days as a high school quarterback but never understand his descent into drugs.

And exactly what McDormand's character does (something backstage, I presume, at a Broadway theater) is never made clear. The real sparks occur between De Niro and LuPone when the ex-spouses immediately fall into an old pattern of sniping, accusation and recrimination.

This could have been a crime contender. Instead, it's a thin exploration of the thin blue line and those on either side of it, with a forced attempt to slap on a happy ending. It's a sad day when an episode of "NYPD Blue" can be more enlightening than a movie with two Oscar winners and one of Hollywood's most promising young actors.

Barbara Vancheri can be reached at bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632.

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