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Whenever a movie is promoted as "inspired by" or "based on a true story," there’s an immediate fanning of hyped controversy in the media as to whether the movie is faithful to its source material or not. It’s an issue that, unless the film has political implications (like, for example, some Oliver Stone flicks), is of interest primarily to those whose presumably true story is being told. There’s a huge difference between using a story as the source of inspiration for a creative work as against making a documentary. (Even the latter are seen through the eyes of the filmmaker; absolute objectivity cannot be expected.) So put away that red herring issue. The question is whether or not the film works in and of itself.
City by the Sea takes place in contemporary Long Beach, an old resort town on the south shore of Long Island, somewhere between Coney Island and Southampton, both geographically and socio-economically, once the summer playground for the New York City middle-class seeking respite from the sweltering urban streets. The movie presents Long Beach as a slum–a collection of abandoned buildings and graffiti-smeared walls, a boardwalk primarily inhabited by drug dealers and their customers. Since City by the Sea was filmed in Asbury Park (a New Jersey version of Long Beach), this state of decay may or may not apply to the real Long Beach, but that will be of concern primarily to the Long Beach Chamber of Commerce. Director Michael Caton-Jones (Rob Roy) uses archival footage under the main titles to present a nostalgic picture of the old, carefree resort (with Guy Lombardo singing "Red Sails in the Sunset" on the soundtrack), setting up a contrast for the grim contemporary reality (when the music changes to a contemporary, bluesy jazz sound).
It seems a promising beginning, but once the story is known, it doesn’t fit very well because for all three generations of the LaMarca family that provide the backbone of the plot, what emerges is a picture of sad family dysfunction. Things were always rather grim and traumatic; there was no carefree golden time.
Vincent (Robert De Niro) grew up in the shadow of his father who was executed as a murderer when Vincent was eight, leaving Vincent with a permanent pain of abandonment and an impaired ability to form a committed relationship. He escaped from both Long Beach and a bad marriage, in turn abandoning his own son, Joey (James Franco). In New York he’s made a successful career as a homocide detective and is in an emotionally reticent affair with his neighbor, Michelle (Frances McDormand).
Joey, a junkie, gets into a fight with a drug dealer. When the knifed corpse of the dealer washes up near the Brooklyn Bridge, Vincent is on the case, which takes him back to his home town only to learn that his son is the prime suspect. The film follows the investigation, which escalates when Vincent’s partner is shot and killed while hunting down the suspect. Vincent is fighting to give Joey a chance; the cops are more revenge-oriented than interested in a fair investigation. The old police-story cliche about cops going into a dangerous situation, ignoring normal procedure of waiting for backup, is coughed up again here, not once but twice.
The script tells a complicated, event-filled story with admirable clarity. The film also benefits from the performances of Franco (James Dean), who makes Joey’s pain and inability to turn his life around believable, and McDormand (Fargo, Almost Famous), who takes the somewhat soapy role of Vincent’s squeeze up a level or two with an understated portrayal that rings emotionally true. De Niro, at the fulcrum of all these relationships, doesn’t deliver at the same level, partly because the script’s examination of his motivation doesn’t get much beyond the obvious–and that is mostly expressed in confessional monologues to Joey and to Michelle which also deal more in events than in feelings. De Niro spars around the character, making occasional stabs at getting under the surface, but he never really inhabits the role, so when the climactic showdown scene with Joey arrives, it doesn’t grab at a visceral level–you don’t find yourself rooting for them as you would have had the characterizations been probed more significantly.