In the opening sequence from City by the Sea, the sun rises with a dull blue pallor over the bombed-out buildings of Long Beach, a once-thriving Long Island vacation community-turned-crack house. Joey LaMarca (James Franco) tries futilely to sell an electric guitar to passersby for dope money, his quiet desperation building until he eventually tries to make contact with his estranged father Vincent (Robert DeNiro). For a few blissful moments, City by the Sea feels like an edgy family drama determined to find low-key honesty in the tangled lives of its characters.
It is at about this point that the snarling killer drug dealer called Spider enters, bearing a shotgun.
City by the Sea may be based on a true story, but nearly everything about it that could be considered true ends up buried in the rote mechanics of every police thriller you’ve ever seen before. Vincent, you see, is a homicide detective, investigating the murder of a small-time street dealer. But no sooner than you can say “bitter irony,” Vincent discovers that the prime suspect is none other than—dunt dunt DUN—his own son Joey, whose life Vincent abruptly left when his marriage went sour nearly 20 years earlier. The investigation forces Vincent to confront his issues with his own father—executed in Vincent’s youth for killing a child in a botched kidnapping—and decide whether it’s more important for him to be a good cop or finally to be a good father.
The career-vs.-family dichotomy may sound pretty trite and melodramatic, but City by the Sea actually attacks it from a subtly subversive direction. The script by Ken Hixon tackles the much-talked-about issue of fatherless generations—boys whose dads were incarcerated or otherwise absent—figuring out how to be fathers themselves with no model to guide them. While Vincent struggles with his pain as both a father and a son, he also discovers that Joey has a son on whom the family “curse” might be further visited. And while it’s more typical to approach the subject from a standpoint of race, City by the Sea makes it clear that there are no boundaries on the tragedy of sons watching their fathers disappear from their lives.
It’s potent subject matter, but apparently, that’s not enough. Because the murdered dealer went belly-up with a roll of cash on him, Joey becomes the target of the aforementioned Spider (William Forsythe), who through some psychic accounting methodology, somehow knows the exact amount the dealer was carrying. City by the Sea starts marching its way through obligatory action beats, from Spider’s ominous threats to police searches of dark warehouses, with doomed family-man cops thrown in for good measure. By the time the film reaches its standoff finale—the tearful rapprochement between Vincent and Joey underscored by SWAT bullhorns and lit by helicopter searchlights—there’s almost nothing left that you couldn’t find on the direct-to-video shelf.
Though it’s impossible to know for sure how something like City by the Sea goes wrong, it’s easy to make an educated guess. You don’t get talented actors like DeNiro, Franco and Frances McDormand (as Vincent’s girlfriend) with something that looks on the page as blandly generic as this film turns out to be. You also don’t have the ideal marriage of material and money when a studio like Warner Bros. sets out to give it a wide release. City by the Sea stinks of a project that was pumped up with external action—either voluntarily by director Michael Caton-Jones or via some studio memo—to give the marketing people something easier to sell. It’s a tiny independent film rattling around inside the bloated body of a Hollywood project.
Every once in a while, you can see that tiny film waving its arms to be rescued. The actors find small, honest moments where they can—notably Eliza Dushku as the troubled mother of Joey’s baby—through relationships too often defined by speeches. Long Beach itself provides plenty of appropriately gritty atmosphere, though at times it’s hard to tell whether the location has taken more of a beating from years of neglect or from being whipped by this script as a metaphor for disintegrated family bliss. Everything that could have been small and restrained winds up pumped full of cinematic steroids. You can almost hear the whispers of honesty behind the throaty growl of a drug dealer named Spider.