Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 08, 2003 3:05 pm 
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Tragic drama winds up having too much talk

With its dark suburban New York setting and tragic plot of a doomed crime-ridden family, 'City by the Sea' superficially resembles movies like James Gray's 'Little Odessa' and 'The Yards,' which have a wonderful brooding intensity about them, or Phil Joanou's 'State of Grace,' an explosive film about crime dynasties where Sean Penn and Gary Oldman memorably duke it out, bu the director, Michael Caton-Jones, doesn't have the scripts Gray had or care as deeply about his material as Gray did, nor does he have a powerhouse combo like Penn and Oldman. Though James Franco, as the violent junky son, has great cheekbones and standup greasy hair, and does the moody, needy pouting thing very well, he's no match for De Niro, and Frances McDormand, as De Niro's part-time apartment house girlfriend, is too self-effacing to provide much energy, despite the nuance and class of her performance. The set-up, from a factual magazine story, is that a cop whose dad was executed for murder finds himself chasing a son wanted for the same crime, and both father and son suffer from major abandonment issues that leave them very needy and dysfunctional.

There's lots of material here to awaken emotions of one's own worst life psycho-dramas: failed responsibilities, moral failures, doubts about parenthood are powerfully evoked. This movie is not lacking in emotion. But it eventually seems that Caton-Jones wasn't provided with much plot. Vincent De Marca (De Niro) spends a lot of the movie chasing his son Joey (Franco) around vacant lots and desolate empty casinos, trying to get him to turn himself in. That's the situation we start out with, and it's the situation we end up with. Along the way there are discussions with cops, discussions with family members, a couple of face-to-face encounters between Vincent and Joey; a couple of violent deaths; but mostly a lot of talk. Way too much talk. The screenwriter has packed his scenes chock full of exposition - of what's happened; of what people are feeling: a lot of telling, when the fine cast would have been quite capable of showing.

Vincent De Marca is a man who has walked away from his wife and his son in the past. He has a chance to redeem himself, but the habit of walking away is deeply engrained. His numbed-down state is shown by how he makes his relationship with his girlfriend (McDormand) a chain of rituals, without any sharing of what's going on inside. It all comes out in the final big scene, a last-minute explosion of begging and unloading and hope for redemption wherein De Niro becomes completely raw and unprotected. The trouble is it's as full of rapid-fire exposition as the end of 'The Maltese Falcon' or 'The Big Sleep.' The scenes that climax the end of 'City by the Sea' are as talky as a Forties detective story, and the intensity and openness of this finale is out of key with the anomie and withdrawnness of the characters and the desolation evoked by the settings up till then. 'City by the Sea' isn't a unified or consistent or otherwise satisfying movie. But it does have some good performances and some nice dark ruined urban landscapes of Asbury Park, standing in for Long Beach, New Jersey. Caton-Jones directed De Niro before in 'The Boy's Life' (1993) along with Eliza Dushku, who plays Joey's girlfriend here. The director was on much stronger ground in 'This Boy's Life' with Tobias Wolff's autobiographical novel than with the magazine article 'City by the Sea' is based on.

September 17, 2002

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