- The Washington Times - Friday, September 6, 2002

"City by the Sea" begins the post-summer movie season on a commendably sober and absorbing note but retaining a favorable opinion of this topical melodrama about a father-son reconciliation in perilous circumstances might be enhanced by ducking out 10 minutes early and imagining a plausible denouement.

The one chosen by screenwriter Ken Hixon and director Michael Caton-Jones seems desperately contrived even conspicuously embarrassing.

Among other eyesores, it reduces Robert De Niro to a fit of blubbering that contradicts every reticent, eloquently underplayed virtue of the performance he sustains before lapsing into the lachrymose.

This is the price that can be paid when you fail to follow through effectively on a climactic scene in this case a long nocturnal conversation on a boardwalk in which police detective Vincent LaMarca (Mr. De Niro) attempts to talk his estranged and fugitive son Joey (James Franco) into surrendering.

The errant Joey is wanted for questioning in a fatal stabbing episode that the movie establishes as a pretext for flight at the outset: The young man is drawn into a knife fight with a drug pusher he evidently knows too well.

The pusher's corpse comes to the attention of Joey's father, a Manhattan-based homicide detective who appears professionally esteemed but personally reclusive. The crime originated in his former hometown, the Long Island beach resort of Long Beach, whose fashionable years are evoked in vintage travelogue footage during the prologue.

Urban decay evidently transformed Long Beach into a slum during the 1970s, and the elder LaMarca returns to an ominously haunted landscape of ocean vistas, crumbling neighborhoods and abandoned seaside attractions.

The most imposing single edifice is a cavernous amusement hall that has become a shooting gallery and a part-time hideout for Joey, an addict and petty thief who begins to resemble a kind of phantom of the boardwalk while evading the police and a neighborhood drug despot called Spyder, portrayed as a heavy on a Harley by William Forsythe.

Because the initial scuttlebutt identifies Joey by his nickname, Joey Nova, the elder LaMarca doesn't realize that he's on a case involving his own wayward son.

When this fact surfaces, he becomes an object of solicitude for colleagues, notably George Dzunda as his affable partner, Reg. Obliged to retrace his own steps and ponder his own private failures, LaMarca pays a call on his embittered ex-wife, Maggie (Patti LuPone), and we discover that their split eventually led to complete estrangement between father and son when Joey was very young.

Reluctantly, LaMarca also reveals bits and pieces of a checkered past to a girlfriend named Michelle (Frances McDormand), who shares a neighboring apartment and mutually satisfying sleepovers in the Manhattan theater district.

The circumstances persuade LaMarca to confide in Michelle at long last. What he reveals comes partly as a relief and partly as grounds for apprehension. LaMarca has some gruesome and shameful skeletons in his family closet.

The screenplay takes numerous liberties with the family and professional history of an actual Vincent LaMarca, a police detective who grew up in the authentic Long Beach and served there for 20 years until his retirement in 1989. The fate of his father, executed for murder when Mr. LaMarca was a boy, is echoed in the screenplay of "City by the Sea."

His belated reacquaintance with a criminally inclined and endangered son named Joey also has a basis in fact. However, the steps toward reconciliation that the movie isolates in Long Beach during a few days didn't begin for the real Vincent LaMarca until his son had been apprehended in Texas on a fugitive warrant.

The movie is contrived to alternate the desperation of the fugitive son, hiding and scurrying like a rat in familiar neighborhood surroundings, with the alarm and remorse of the father as he tries to bring in the young man and protect him from homicidal retaliation by the expediently menacing Spyder.

The setting has considerable picturesque-decrepit allure, although it's a geographical fake-out. Long Beach has rebounded from decay in recent years, so Asbury Park, N.J., was borrowed as the boardwalk double. Cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub, who collaborated with Mr. Caton-Jones on both "Rob Roy" and "The Jackal," has an impressive command of spacious compositions and scene-setting.

We don't learn anything reliable about the sociological ills of Long Beach, but there is an effective illusion of familiarity with places that haunt Vincent LaMarca while providing Joey LaMarca with a vivid backdrop for danger, rather like the Vienna evoked in "The Third Man" by director Carol Reed and cinematographer Robert Krasker.

The movie's superior blend of established and upcoming performers compensates for recurrent soft spots in the narrative. The crossing of generations between Mr. De Niro and Mr. Franco may seem even more savory as time goes by.

It's a shame the screenplay isn't contrived to take optimum advantage of the emotional connections they appear to share. Mr. De Niro and Miss LuPone also deserve follow-up scenes worthy of their dynamic first encounter.

Eliza Dushku, as Joey's girlfriend, also makes an impression that should make it impossible to kiss her off, especially when the kiss-off involves leaving an infant as a dangling prop.

Anson Mount as a young detective and Cyrus Farmer as a hoodlum help authenticate the Long Beach scene on opposite sides of the law. The shortcomings that seem a bit troublesome are rendered negligible when the plot takes a sprawling belly-flop down the stretch.

There had to be a better way or about 15 better ways of resolving the surrender of Joey LaMarca. If I were a screenwriting guru, I'd be tempted to challenge a class with precisely that assignment. Call it the LaMarca Rescue.

Despite flunking this test, "City by the Sea" can be recommended as both a scenic and ensemble attraction. The settings and actors command respect even though the plot collapses.


TITLE: "City by the Sea"

RATING: R (Occasional profanity, graphic violence and sexual candor;

depictions of drug use and allusions to addiction and prostitution)

CREDITS: Directed by Michael Caton-Jones.

RUNNING TIME: 108 minutes


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