City by the Sea (2002)
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Review Date: August 27, 2002
Director: Michael Caton-Jones
Writer: Ken Hixon
Producers: Elie Samaha, Matthew Baer
Robert De Niro
James Franco
Frances McDormand
An aging cop, out of touch with his ex-wife and son, suddenly finds himself on a murder case which features his boy as the prime suspect. As the man struggles to balance his responsibility as a father and his duty as a police officer, he is also faced with various questions about his own past. An interesting character study ensues.
The first thing that you need to know going into this movie is that it is NOT an action flick! It's a drama, through and through, which just happens to star a man who happens to be a cop. It isn't about shoot-outs, chases and detective work...it's about one man's effort to deal with the mistakes of his past. The second thing that you need to know is that Robert DeNiro is finally back! After a few years of slipping and sliding through some cliché parts and comedic roles, the (arguably) greatest American actor living today reminds us of why we love watching him on the big screen in the first place. He's a spent man in this picture. Every shot of his tired, pudgy face bleeds regret, resonates the failures of long-ago and clearly encapsulates the deep-rooted issues billowing up inside him. These are things that you might not necessarily notice on the surface, but if you pay really close attention to DeNiro in this movie...you feel it, you see it in his eyes, you sense it in his character. To be honest with you, after seeing the lame trailer (and poster) for this movie, I was fully expecting to see DeNiro sleepwalking through this role, but the man is back in full-fledged "method" form here and you truly recognize it in his character's anguish throughout. Awesome stuff. Nice to have you back, dude.

The other part of the film which totally clicked for me was James Franco, who is also amazingly convincing as DeNiro's junkie-ass son. Almost unrecognizable in the role, Franco showcases his obvious acting chops with an extremely well-rounded performance of yet another man dealing with his inner-demons. Unlike DeNiro's character who seems to have it all together, Franco is as fucked up as they come, but he's trying his best and you ultimately learn to respect him on certain levels. Those two performances and the dealings of both men vis-à-vis the other were enough for me to consider this film a success, but there's more stuff that works as well. There's Frances McDormand as the downstairs neighbor and confidante of DeNiro's, who is up to her usual snuff. There's Eliza Dushku, taking on a small but significant role without showing off her boobies, and convincing. There's a rookie cop who respects DeNiro and has his own connection to the case, William Forsythe as a nasty biker, and a very gritty, street look throughout, reminiscent of 70s crime flicks. I also loved how they used Long Beach's decrepit nature as the backdrop to the whole story, and the film's resolution, which although clichéd on the surface (a shootout), doesn't resolve that easily and offers a little suspense to boot.

I can see how some might blow this flick off as being too slow, too "formula" or not action-oriented enough, but this film has its own agenda. It's a mannered, mature story of a man who has to work through his own habits and ultimately come to grips with the darkness of his past, and a son whom he never really mentored. The whole "murder storyline" seemed more of a byline to me, like a way through which this man and his son finally connected (admittedly, some of it is weak). It's for patient viewers, it doesn't feature any action, and despite a couple of small laughs, is pretty darn grim and serious most of the time (the one really bad scene in the film feels like a studio insert as the camera circles around DeNiro's character as we hear various thoughts from the film running through his mind-c'mon man, give us a little more credit than that!) But if you're in the mood for some emotion (I had a lot of my "own shit" going on when I saw this and broke down like a bitch on several occasions, but I think more of that had to do with my "own shit" than the flick itself), some heartfelt family orientation, struggles for redemption and solid directing, you should definitely check this film out and enjoy two of the greater acting performances of the year so far. Just remember...there are no easy solutions here...just like in real life.
(c) 2018 Berge Garabedian

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