Masterful acting saves ‘City by the Sea’

Paul Benedict

When the dust has settled and the sun has officially gone down on Robert De Niro’s illustrious career, people will remember him most for his classic roles. Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver,” Jake La Motta in “Raging Bull,” Jimmy Conway in “Goodfellas;” these are all characters that De Niro has embarked into legendary movie personalities. And now as his career continues to flourish, De Niro can add another name to his long list of acclaimed performances: Vincent LaMarca in “City by the Sea.” As a tarnished, emotionally battered police officer, De Niro gives his most passionate performance in recent years.

Set in the backdrops of Long Beach, N.Y. (hence the title), “City By the Sea” centers around the relationship, or lack there of, between Vincent, an esteemed cop who has battled through his father’s execution when he was a kid to make something of himself today, and his estranged, junkie son Joey (James Franco). Vincent left Joey and his mother years back and doesn’t keep in contact with them.

In the opening scene, a cracked-out Joey gets caught in a bit of a snag when a drug deal goes awry and he ends up murdering the dealer in self-defense. Sure enough the man on the case happens to be Vincent, and in short time Joey LaMarca is identified as the main suspect. Throughout the film, Vincent morally struggles with trying to bring in Joey as well as help the son that he hasn’t been there for. Helping him out along the way is his downstairs-girlfriend Michelle, played extremely well by Frances McDormand (“Fargo,” “Almost Famous”). Michelle allows us to know Vincent more personally and see that he is an emotionally-drained, yet still compassionate man. Some of the better scenes include Vincent and Michelle, regardless of the lackluster dialogue the couple has to work with. Just seeing two of the world’s finest actors work together is a joy in itself.

While the entire cast keeps the film afloat, the lack of substance and style ultimately keep it from being one to stash away in your memory. Director Michael Caton-Jones (“Rob Roy,” “This Boy’s Life”) does very little to add to an interesting storyline, and that’s where the film hurts. Since it’s a character-driven piece, the most important part of the production was ensuring that the characters felt authentic and real, and De Niro, Franco and McDormand certainly achieved this.

However, I kept waiting for suspense, for something to make me grab onto the armrests and hold on tight. There were moments that were set up perfectly for instances like this, but nothing ever really came about. Ken Hixon’s script was by-the-books with yawn-inducing dialogue and a complete lack of flair. “City By the Sea” played out like your average run-of-the-mill drama saved by a masterful performance from De Niro. In the most pivotal scene, De Niro is called upon to arouse his melodramatic side, somewhat of a rarity for the usual tough-guy. And just when you think, “Here comes the scene we’ve all been expecting, what a surprise!,” De Niro delivers Academy-Award-style, reminding his audience why he’s as impressive an actor as there is out there.