"City by the Sea" is a movie that exults in piling misery upon misery. Familial, vocational, recreational -- you name the avenue for anguish and it's in here somewhere, investigated so slowly and deliberately that one begins to suspect director Michael Caton-Jones ("This Boy's Life") of holding a serious sadistic streak.
New York homicide detective Vincent LaMarca (Robert De Niro) reaches a calamitous intersection of his personal and professional lives while investigating a killing that took place in the burned-out seaside community of Long Beach. The evidence indicates that the culprit is LaMarca's estranged son, Joey (James Franco), a junkie torn between his dissolute lifestyle and his hopeful wish to flee to someplace where he can get clean -- like the Florida Keys. (At a recent screening, this repeated absurdity drew howls of laughter, long before it became clear that scriptwriter Ken Hixon is in on the joke.)
The father-son conflict is conceit enough, but it's just the beginning. As LaMarca re-enters the orbit of with his abandoned family, we learn that the rift between the divorced detective and his ex-wife (Patti LuPone) had a lot to do with his propensity to slap the old lady around when times got tough. A domestic-violence subplot welcomes an invigorating round of parental scapegoating, and "City by the Sea" comes up with a doozy: LaMarca's social skills are underdeveloped because he's haunted by memories of his own dad, a felon who was executed for staging a kidnapping that ended in the infant victim's accidental suffocation.
So I guess what I'm saying is that the biggest flaw of "City by the Sea" is its lack of dance numbers. What it does have is an exquisitely bleak depiction of Long Beach as a 21st-century hell. Production designer Jane Musky and director of photography Karl Walter hone in on the dispiriting sights of a boardwalk society gone to seed: The background of shuttered, filth-flecked fun houses is both operatically tragic and completely accurate. (Been to Asbury Park recently?)
Look closer, though, and you'll realize that the grit has been slathered onto a dramatic infrastructure that only approximates decadence. The shady characters who inhabit Joey's world have names like Spyder and Snake. And his burger-slinging girlfriend (Eliza Dushku, as glamorous in her poverty as Franco) lives in an apartment located above a peep show -- a creative decision that allows Caton-Jones to punctuate her dialogue with the flashing of a neon sign in her window, and the sounds of bumping and grinding wafting through the floorboards. The squalor! The squalor!
A markedly inactive film, City is conversational bordering on confessional. Luckily, there's not a truly bad bit of acting to be viewed. Frances McDormand even makes something honorable of the flimsy role of LaMarca's new girlfriend, who implores him to share his buried feelings and promptly disappears as soon as he does. Women aren't exactly this movie's cause célèbre: LaMarca is only marginally repentant for his history of battery and never has to answer for it. Instead, it's male reconciliation that matters, leading to the collapse of De Niro's previously serviceable performance when he has to spew an awful call for father-son healing that's an unwieldy mouthful of Dr. Phil.
Based on a true story. As if that means a thing.