Like Clint Eastwood, Robert De Niro is one of those guys who can make just about any material inherently enjoyable. Also like Eastwood, he will sometimes make you wish he'd pick roles that are a little more challenging. His recent record of relatively disposable films speaks for itself: tough-yet-sensitive cop (Showtime), tough-yet-sensitive jewel thief (The Score), tough-yet-sensitive cop (15 Minutes), tough-yet-sensitive retired CIA guy (Meet the Parents), tough-yet-sensitive drill sergeant (Men of Honor). In City by the Sea, he plays...can you guess it? Right--a tough-yet-sensitive cop. As with Eastwood's recent Blood Work, it's sufficient to please fans, but less than you'd hope for from a man of De Niro's considerable talents.
The film takes place in Long Beach--the East Coast version, not Snoop Dogg's LBC. Once a thriving seaside community, it's degenerated into a slum that "looks like the Serbian army came through." Amid the burned-out husks that were once casinos dwells a junkie known as Joey Nova (James Franco), who pawns stolen guitars to feed his drug habit and wistfully dreams that one day he'll escape to the Florida Keys, where he fondly remembers vacationing with his father as a child. Then reality, and Picasso (Jay Boryea), a drug dealer with Maori face tattoos, smacks him in the face. There's a knife in play, and soon Picasso's body is dredged from the river, making Joey a wanted man, by both the cops and Picasso's pals.
That father of whom Joey had such fond memories is, of course, De Niro, herein named Vincent LaMarca. Joey's pleasant recollections are obscured, however, by his hatred for Dad as a result of his bitter divorce and ultimate alienation from both ex-wife and son. De Niro's character has his own issues with his father--movie screenwriters must have the worst fathers, given how often this theme comes up--and commitment-phobia when it comes to the middle-aged beauty (Frances McDormand) downstairs.
City by the Sea
For Franco, there are some uncanny coincidences in the role. Having just recently gained the world's notice as the son of the Green Goblin in Spider-Man, he once again plays both the estranged son of a scene-stealing actor, and mortal enemy of a spider, or in this case Spyder (William Forsythe), who drives a motorcycle, sports Michael Douglas' '80s hair and is just a tad miffed that his buddy Picasso croaked without forking over a big wad of cash. Franco also gets to romance another star of Bring It On (following Kirsten Dunst's Mary Jane): Eliza Dushku, who, like Franco, is pinup material in real life but impressively dirtied down for the gritty look required here. Given that Franco's name is above the title on some of the posters, the hope is clearly that this will be his big breakthrough. Could be--playing a junkie believably is often a major step toward credibility (ask Jennifer Connelly), and he does it well.
We so often hear the lament that Hollywood films don't have characters we can care about that it's a real pleasure to note that all the people in this one feel fully developed. It'd be nice if there were more of a plot to go along with them--basically, De Niro chases his kid around derelict buildings the entire movie--but baby steps are good. Though screenwriter Ken Hixon, who loosely based this screenplay on a 1997 Esquire article, drops the occasional bon mot (an elderly coroner gets the best line in the movie: "I had to jerk off twice this morning just to get my heart started"), he makes some things just too obvious. When perennial sidekick George Dzundza (Basic Instinct) tells De Niro, "You'll miss it when it's gone," after De Niro turns down an invite to one of his warm family dinners, he might as well put on a red shirt and beam down with Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock.
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Still, it's a testament to De Niro and director Michael Caton-Jones (This Boy's Life) that by movie's end, we accept the characters and the film, flaws and all.