On the recommendation of my father, I went to see Robert DeNiro's latest, City by the Sea, skipping the newest release this week, Stealing Harvard. I must say I was both surprised and disappointed. What I thought was going to be another typical cop drama turns out to be awash with subtext. So deep does the meaning go, however, that at times the movie starts to founder instead of float.
City by the Sea is a movie about a lot of things. It's about loss and redemption. It's about degradation and renewal. It's about overcoming stigma. It's about overcoming guilt. It's about fathers and sons. It's about man and wife. It's about all of us. It's about so many things, that at times it was difficult to concentrate on the story, which, at heart, is relatively simple.
Robert DeNiro is Detective LaMarca, NYPD. He's a good man who comes home to his small apartment every night, watches a little TV, eats a little dinner, and then, around 11:00 p.m., walks over to Times Square to escort his girlfriend home from her Broadway box office job. It's a simple life; uncomplicated, but you get the feeling that DeNiro is sad. It will become apparent later why that is, but it won't change the fact that DeNiro's mood imbues the entire film with a kind of blue funk that keeps the film from ever really sparkling.
Meanwhile, in LaMarca's old neighborhood, the dilapidatedseaside community of Long Beach, LaMarca's estranged son, Joey, lives out a desperate, drug-fueled existence in the abandoned carnival buildings that line the beach. It's interesting to note, that the movie was not actually filmed in Long Beach, but in another run-down resort town further down the beach. Apparently the actual Long Beach wasn't quite decayed enough for producers. After an exchange gone bad that results in the death of a small-time dealer, Joey is on the run, both from the cops, and from the dealer's employer who is convinced that the younger LaMarca has money that belongs to him. DeNiro, heading up the homicide investigation, soon realizes that his son is the lead suspect and must choose between loyalty to a son he hardly knows, and adherence to strict values system that allows for little or no variance. When a fellow detective winds up dead, things only get more complicated.
City by the Sea flows slowly along, interestingly, but not particularly quickly, to a decidedly unbelievable climax, that, while not making a lot of sense as far as the plot goes, does, at least, allow DeNiro to finally emote some. The acting was, overall, well done, though I felt DeNiro could have benefitted from adding just a dash of Raging Bull's LaMotta to his LaMarca. Francis McDormand brings a little ray of light to the mostly dreary production in a small role as the elder LaMarca's girlfriend. Walking away with the entire production, however, was James Franco, as the young Joey. This incredible young actor gives a searing portrait of the destructive nature of addiction (another theme). Joey LaMarca is a regular kid, a nice guy who, at some point, got hooked up with some bad people and now faces life under the boardwalk, literally. His gaunt, sharply lined features, and quiet, slouchy way of acting are reminiscent of a modern day James Dean. So closely does he resemble the icon that he recently played Dean in a version of his life. Even if the rest of the movie was a complete waste of time, Franco's performance is worth the ticket price.
When it's all said and done, City by the Sea is an exercise in loss, regret, and finally, hope. Much like the recent Changing Lanes, Sea is much deeper than the previews let on. Unlike Lanes, however, this film has trouble getting up to speed. The performances are first rate, the writing is top of the line, but the pacing is draggy and subdued. City by the Sea had the potential to sail high on the post-summer seas, but someone left the rope tied to the dock. Grade: B
City by the Sea rated R for language, violence, and scenes of drug use. I would also like to mention that anyone who read last week's review of Swimfan knows how I (and the rest of civilized society, for that matter) feel about cellphones in the movie theater. Almost as if it were to spite me, with only eight people in the theater at City by the Sea, there were two cell conversations directly behind me. I think the guy only finally went into the lobby because he couldn't hear over the movie. I'm surprised he didn't ask them to turn the movie down! Please, and you know who you are, there is a reason why we go out to the movies, and not over to your house. Either turn it off, or leave it in the car.
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