Born to Run
Director Michael Caton-Jones' new drama appropriately begins with an epitaph to the titular town in which it's set. The opening statement describes the once booming seaside town of Long Beach, a vacation community just beyond the grim reach of Manhattan. So dubbed "the city by the sea," the Long Island town has since become a run-down, dilapidated wasteland. And for Caton-Jones, that image of erosion and breakdown is a central one, as everything in City by the Sea hinges on the notion of good things gone bad. But, for all its neatly packaged symbolism, this Robert DeNiro vehicle is little more than a compulsory tale of loss and redemption; even though "the city by the sea" can't be saved with a good ol' fashioned Hollywood ending, the people in the movie can.
Based on an article that appeared in Esquire in 1997 called "Mark of a Murderer," City by the Sea tells the true story of a celebrated New York City homicide detective investigating a murder in which his estranged son is the chief witness. Shamed by the notorious conviction of his own father, DeNiro's world-weary Vincent LaMarca has separated himself from his notorious family name by maintaining an exemplary record on the force. Now, living in Manhattan with a longtime girlfriend (Frances McDormand), Vincent's former life as a failed husband and errant father is all but a distant memory.
But, when the top cop begins investigating a case in which his son Joey (James Franco) is involved, he's unwillingly drawn back into a past he's continually trying to forget. Now he must face the son he hasn't seen or spoken to in over 14 years, as both a cop and a father.
Caton-Jones, who's built a career out of making watchable, but unmemorable fare like This Boy's Life and Rob Roy, has a strong and compelling story here, but is finally unable to do anything notable with it. Disregarding the onslaught of coincidences which propel the action forward (the most outstanding being that, out of all the cops in the NYPD, LaMarca is assigned the one homicide his kid may have committed), City by the Sea has a strong hook with its tale of an embittered father and son who hate each other as much as they need each other. From the outset, it seems like Caton-Jones also has fertile ground to work in a strong angle about two men with separately haunted pasts.
And, as James Franco's sunken-eyed junkie wanders the alleys of Long Beach, the pressing notion that this town, like its prodigal son, is a mere shadow of its former self never leaves the screen. But the over-arching parallel between the internal and external setting quickly turns into a trite best of times/worst of times motif and Caton-Jones has little more in the way of notable undercurrents and backdrops.
Shot on location in Asbury Park, NJ (chosen for its own history as a former beach resort which has now become seedy and run-down), you can almost hear the strained chords of a Bruce Springsteen song trying to push through in City By the Sea. Springsteen, who grew up in and around Asbury Park and dedicated one of his first albums to the crumbling Garden State town, sings over and over again about decaying dreams and American values. And, no doubt, the LaMarcas would be a classic Springsteen clan-honest, blue collar, hard-working folks whose lives took a wrong turn somewhere along the way. Unfortunately, for all its visual posturing, Caton-Jones' film never achieves the heartbreaking clarity that Springsteen hits on time and again, a clarity that lays bare what it means to ache, to be young, to be alone, and to be forever lost in the past.
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