Films "based on a true story" about little-known people should raise red flags in moviegoers' minds. With City by the Sea, however, we can relax. The man whose tale it tells, upstanding New York homicide detective Vincent LaMarca, has gone on record saying that his story has been Hollywood-ized, but he's been following that statement up with the claim that he's very happy with what Hollywood has done to his story.
And since Esquire magazine has pretty healthy readership numbers, a lot of people are going to remember reading about LaMarca in a 1997 story. It was about the difficulty young La Marca had in dealing with his father's criminal conviction and execution. Then it went on to detail a case he later ended up working on which had his own son accused of murder.
Plenty of fodder for Hollywood there. And a re-teaming of director Michael Caton-Jones and Robert De Niro. They both brought a lot of class to This Boy's Life almost a decade ago, and they've produced a better, more intense, more personal film this time.
Happily, it's one of those films that's going to generate debate about who the lead actor is. De Niro has more screen time than newcomer James Franco, and he delivers perhaps his most interior portrayal to date -- his LaMarca is a good man, albeit someone who has made mistakes in the past, a man carrying baggage galore. There's an incredible amount of emotional turmoil in and around him, but he keeps his cool.
But almost right alongside him is the very busy Franco (who played the title role in last year's TV movie James Dean) as the strung-out, estranged son who's tired of living an aimless life, wants desperately to get straight, but keeps finding himself deeper in trouble. (Note to producers casting any Keith Richards biopics: look no further than this talented actor.) While his part is smaller than De Niro's, he may actually give the stronger performance. His Joey convincingly carries the weight of the world on his shoulders, or more accurately, on his tired face.
And though the film is chock-full of other terrific performances -- from Frances McDormand to Eliza Dushku -- only one other actor, with even less screen time, gives De Niro and Franco a run for their accolades: William Forsythe (Dick Tracy, Patty Hearst). As Spyder, Forsythe is a frightening character with no good thoughts on his mind, the kind of guy you would never want to meet. He becomes more menacing as the film progresses.
The film's handful of stories revolve around heartbreaking circumstances concerning people with shattered lives, most of whom are trying to find a way to fix things. But it could be argued that the environment alone is keeping most of them down. It's shot in and around Long Beach, New York (the proudly self-proclaimed title city), shown at the beginning as the popular ocean mecca of years ago, seen now as decrepit collection of crumbling buildings and empty landscapes. With the long ago father-son relationship of LaMarca and his dad regularly hinted at, and the nonexistent one between him and Joey right up front, there's not a lot of happiness to be found. And it doesn't get much sadder than when LaMarca sits at home watching old movies of his young son in happier times (similar sequences have been seen in Minority Report and, stretching it a little, Strange Days).
At least some sympathy is going to be felt for practically all of the characters -- except Spyder, who viewers will want to see dispatched as expediently as possible. That's a major plus for the filmmakers and especially the actors, because an argument could be made that many of the characters are walking a very thin line between good and bad.
The only place a problem pops up is close to the end, when the melodrama meter dips a little too far into the red. Even De Niro, who up to that point had been keeping all of those emotions under tight control, veers slightly overboard. Despite such flaws, City by the Sea is peopled by fascinating characters, who, though more than slightly Hollywood-ized, come across as very real.