The cinema’s summer fling with father-son dissonance continues unabated with Michael Caton-Jones’s melodramatic police thriller City by the Sea. Loosely based on a real-life case, the movie follows emotionally remote Manhattan detective Vincent LaMarca (emotionally remote Manhattan actor Robert De Niro) as he investigates a murder that turns out to have been committed by his estranged junkie son, Joey (James Franco), whom he left behind in a faded Long Island resort town years before. LaMarca’s grief over this discovery is compounded by the fact that his own father was a convicted murderer whose actions helped motivate him to become a cop.
The film’s source, a 1997 Esquire article by the late Mike McAlary, “Mark of a Murderer,” framed LaMarca’s story as a hard-boiled cautionary tale on the precariousness of redemption. Here, screenwriter Ken Hixon uses intergenerational dynamics—as do Anne Fontaine and Jacques Fieschi in their recent, more equivocal How I Killed My Father—as a means to explore questions of filial responsibility and genetic predisposition. In the process, Hixon milks this premise for every ounce of sappy profundity. The film shamelessly distorts key facts to score sympathy points for dad and his murderous spawn. Such liberties include moving much of the action (and LaMarca, who was actually retired and living in Florida when Joey was arrested) from Long Beach to several overworked New York City locations. The supporting characters, like LaMarca’s cuddly, expendable partner (George Dzundza), wise neighbor and sometimes-girlfriend (Frances McDormand), and cute grandson, as well as a mulleted William Forsythe (in full-blown deus ex machina baddie mode) exist as purely facile inventions contrived to set up the fictional LaMarca’s inevitable, “everybody wins” salvation. The most risible stretch concerns the apparently jet-propelled post-mortem journey of Joey’s victim’s corpse: Dumped in “the river” in Long Beach, the body turns up under the Brooklyn Bridge the following morning none the worse for wear—if only all New Yorkers had such an easy commute.
Caton-Jones, who used De Niro to better effect as the infantile sadist stepfather in This Boy’s Life, mitigates the tale’s thinness and Hixon’s lachrymosity as best he can by coaxing magnetic performances from Franco and Eliza Dushku as Joey’s girlfriend. But even as he gives the proceedings an effectively gloomy tone, the overall milieu (which could be the director’s native Scotland as easily as the Northeastern U.S.) betrays a preference for showy visuals over geographic specificity or the nuance of human intractability. There’s nothing wrong with a little creative license, but the abundance of self-serving fabrication in City by the Sea not only diminishes LaMarca’s experience and cheapens McAlary’s work, it all but desecrates the memory of the real murder victim. You’d never guess it from the thirtysomething tattooed goon in the film, but this unfortunate was closer to Joey’s age and, more importantly, unarmed, when LaMarca Jr. and an accomplice stabbed him to death on a deserted beach. Such knotty details clearly have no place in the movie’s frivolous account of redemption.