City by the Sea

Sep 18, 2002 at 12:00 am

Joey LaMarca is a drug addict on the lam. Investigating officer Vincent LaMarca is forced to face his own past when he realizes his son Joey is wanted for murder, echoing travesties his own father committed and died for years ago.

Inspired by the 1997 Esquire article, “Mark of a Murderer,” by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Mike McAlary, City by the Sea strays so far from the true story it stems from that it really shouldn’t have kept the LaMarca names. McAlary presented the strange particulars of the LaMarca case with an odd poetic beauty, one rich in crazy imagery and circumstance. But the film dulls this down into “cop-dad trying to save his junkie-son on the run,” turning a real-life murderer (convinced that genetics dictated his fate) into a hapless, victim-of-circumstance movie manslaughterer.

Director Michael Caton-Jones has worked with Robert De Niro before, in his 1993 film This Boy’s Life, which also has to do with a boy in trouble needing a father. But the rapport between James Franco and De Niro doesn’t come close to the subtle and intricate emotional volleying De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio mastered in Caton-Jones’ earlier film. Franco, although perfect as a charming troublemaker on Fox’s “Freaks and Geeks,” needs a jolt of intensity to hold his own in this film. Too bad he wasn’t channeling Rod Steiger.

De Niro, one of the industry’s most veracious actors, is a veritable source of sincere passion that this Hollywood contrivance orbits around. He doesn’t let the tired subject matter, plot and characters affect his performance; the man is just so good at what he does, so intimate and familiar, it’s like watching one of the family.

Frances McDormand
doesn’t have enough to sink her acting chops into, since her character is fated to waver outside the action as Vincent’s girlfriend Michelle. And as Spyder, the vendetta-seeking drug dealer, William Forsythe sports a terrifying mullet with an undercurrent both underspoken and intimidating.

If you go to see City by the Sea, make no mistake, what you’ll mostly leave with is De Niro’s performance, and that ain’t so bad.