Based on a true story of dumb choices and unbelievable bad luck, "City by the Sea" is the woeful tale of Vincent LeMarca and his family troubles. LeMarca's father was sent to the electric chair when he was 11 for killing a baby and now he may be watching his own son walk down the same murderous path. Somewhere in between those nightmares, LeMarca became one of New York's finest, with 20-plus years walking the beat; it is one long life of irony for LeMarca.
With Robert DeNiro in the lead, one can already rest assured that most of the acting is taken care of. Then, when Frances McDormand pops up as LeMarca's love interest, Michelle, all remaining doubts are erased. Theirs is a convenient relationship (she's in 3A, he's in 4A) that has reached that point when the woman asks, "So, what's next?"
Meanwhile, LeMarca's estranged son, Joey, is facing hard questions of his own. Hauntingly portrayed by James Franco, Joey has become a junkie who deeply resents his father's abrupt exit from his life after his parent's tumultuous divorce. Patti LuPone is Maggie, Joey's tired mother and LeMarca's bitter ex, who kept them apart all those years. She is the true villain in this story but that is not made clear, only on the bus ride home did I figure that out.
When Joey becomes a murder suspect, LeMarca has to face not only his son but also his entire past and all those intense emotions buried so deeply down, he's unsure where to start looking. This all comes right about the time that Michelle starts to wonder why she knows nothing about the man she is sleeping with. Fine, he says, and one night just lays it all out on the table: his father's notorious past, his son's checkered present, his angry ex-wife. Her jaw can't drop any lower. "Well, " she says, "I guess I asked for it."
This is one of those films that only scratch the prickly surface of something you know could make a fine mini-series. So many layers, so little time, so much to be rectified in too few scenes. In the most memorable scene of the film, Joey and his father finally have a face-to-face conversation after years-long silence. The resentment and anger is palpable but no time for awkwardness, Joey is already a fugitive at this point.
Because the main characters are all men, there is a lot of struggling and gurgling with words, shruggings and "I don't knows". It is annoying and it is real.
Directed by Michael Caton-Jones, this film does its best to cram 50 years of murderous male anger into an hour and a half. It's a decent job and the best move it makes is not tying up all the ends into tidy little bows. One leaves the theater wondering what happened next. Does the murderous family chain end there?
© 2002 - Heather Clisby - Air Date: 9/4/02
City by the Sea
USA - 2002