Detective Vincent LaMarca (Robert DeNiro) is a tough New York detective trying to live down his past family troubles that resulted in his son Joey (James Franco, "Spider-Man") becoming hooked on drugs and hating his very existence. When Joey accidentally stabs a known drug dealer one hazy night, he takes off with a crime kingpin (William Forsythe) on his trail for revenge. Vincent, ravaged with guilt, sets out to find his son and bring him into custody in one piece.
A film about murder, fathers and sons, and forgiveness, "City By The Sea" (IMDb listing) doesn't know what it wants to be. It's far from a chaotic picture, in fact it's one of the more languid films to come out recently that isn't set in the early 1900s. Singular elements of the picture work just fine, but taken as a whole, the film is an uneven, underwhelming picture that can't seem to find its own pulse.
Director Michael Caton-Jones seems to want his film to play both as a hard-nosed cop drama, and as a Hallmark special that ends in a group hug. But Caton-Jones doesn't realize that the genres are like oil and water, and any attempt to mix the two comes off looking foolish. This is a typically clumsy picture from this director, last seen guiding the repulsive "The Jackal" remake, but I wasn't expecting the film to seem so amateurish. Written by Ken Hixon ("Inventing the Abbotts"), the characters in "City By The Sea" say whatever is on their minds, or whatever helps to further the plot, without caution. This clarity helps the film go down easier, but it betrays the performances and the subtlety of the film right away. An emotionally-charged picture like this needs more silence to establish mood and motivations, but Caton-Jones piles on the unnecessary dialog and visual symbolism like they were going out of style.
It's a no-brainer to write that the glue that holds "City By The Sea" together is Robert DeNiro. While the actor has been distracted by his comedic roles recently, it's here, in his trademark New York cop role, that DeNiro truly governs over all. Vincent is a slightly more complex role for DeNiro, as it requires both tenacity and a heavy heart. Trouble arrives with the aforementioned on-the-nose screenplay, and you can see the pleading in DeNiro's eyes to pull back just a little bit on the dialog, and let his face do the acting for him. DeNiro really scores in the finale of the picture, where the emotional tidal wave starts to overcome Vincent's mental dam. It's powerful stuff to watch.
DeNiro isn't helped much by co-star James Franco, who is promising in his initial scenes, but soon degenerates into film-school junkie acting. Eliza Dushku ("Bring It On") has better luck with her addict role, managing to find depth where Franco cannot. Also caught up in this mix is Frances McDormand, positively wasted in the role of Vincent's girlfriend. I didn't think it was possible to misuse the invaluable McDormand, but Caton-Jones has found a way.
How much you come away with from "City By The Sea" depends on how much you can tolerate the mix of genres. For DeNiro fans, it's a must. But for the rest, the film lacks the true kick this heavily-layered story deserves.
Filmfodder Grade: C