Director Michael Caton-Jones’ “City by the Sea” is a film with many stories, but with little plot. There is the story of a murder investigation; a family’s fall from grace; the ruin of a paradisiacal seaside town; and — stop me if you’ve heard this one — the story of the tortured teenage boy who blames his estranged father for everything. Caton-Jones has a number of fine ingredients — including a number of talented actors — but he ends with a sloppy jumble of a film, in which actors and stories vie for airtime.
A quick montage establishes the setting of “City by the Sea”: sunny Long Beach, New York, a town that looks like an old-fashioned travel video, with everyone wearing hats and pastels and bouncing down sidewalks to a scratchy record. In an awkward, not particularly effective transition to modern day, cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub reveals that Long Beach has degenerated into a gritty, gray urban landscape crawling with drug dealers.
Enter Joey Nova (James Franco), who borrowed his name from his Chevy Nova. Joey is a down-on-his-luck druggie, looking to score by selling his guitar. Later that night, while high from smoking crack, Joey kills a small-time street dealer named Picasso.
Without quite realizing the import of his actions, Joey runs home and washes blood from his hands while his mom lectures him — both seem remarkably nonchalant about the quantity of blood and the apparent lack of wounds on Joey, who claims to have been in a fight.
In what seems to be an attempt to create sympathy for Joey, Caton-Jones has Franco completely forgo any show of guilt or anxiety. Instead, Joey waxes nostalgic about a family trip to Key West and his desire to return there, sentiments that seem misplaced under the circumstances. Again, it seems that Caton-Jones is trying to incorporate two story lines — a murder mystery and a family drama — neither of which is properly developed.
“City by the Sea” then shifts to another story: that of the murder investigation. The officer investigating Picasso’s murder is Vincent LaMarca (Robert DeNiro), who has a respected record with the department. After an investigation that is only superficially suspenseful, Vincent discovers that Joey Nova is actually Joey LaMarca, a son from a failed marriage.
From this point on, the murder investigation descends into a boring, standard procedure. Officers elicit confessions from and chase after hokey villains names “Snake” and “Spider”. Then, Caton-Jones and screenwriter Ken Hixon turn to family drama. The LaMarca clan seems to be cursed by violence — Joey murders a dealer in a high rage, and Vincent’s father, Angelo, was executed for accidentally strangling a baby.
Caton-Jones and Hixon are blessed with a fantastic story in the LaMarcas, a clan that actually lived through these traumatic events — or something like them. Writer Mike McAlary penned the almost mythical saga for the September 1997 issue of Esquire magazine, of a family whose name even suggests stigmatization: LaMarca means “the mark” — a dramatically useful point that the filmmakers strangely omit from their version.
In fact, wherever the Esquire piece succeeds, the film fails. One of McAlary’s most eloquent moments is when he ties the fate of a family with the fate of a town. The real-life Angelo’s child murder was no accident; it was a moment of insanity that tore the peaceful illusion of middle class suburbia into pieces.
While the film strives to draw parallels between the unraveling of the LaMarcas and the degeneration of Long Beach, Hixon makes a poor decision by showing Angelo to be an accidental murderer. Perhaps he meant to draw connections between Angelo and Joey, but the film never explicitly, or even implicitly, emphasizes the accidental nature of the murders. Furthermore, the key connection between town and family — the murder that was no accident and the rise in crime that was perhaps inevitable — is simply absent in the film, ruining a potentially strong theme.
McAlary’s tale is one that tackles the human mystery of fate, of inexplicable actions. “City by the Sea” does not recognize the import of these issues, opting for pop psychology and pseudo-drama instead of a smarter plot. Turning points such as the tie between town and family, the discovery of the LaMarca curse, are haphazardly revealed. Moments that should be climactic actually seem insignificant. Talented actors DeNiro and Franco do what they can to create dramatic tension.
The remainder of “City by the Sea” is a jumble of good actors trapped in characters that speak platitudes. Eliza Dushku (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) plays Joey’s well-meaning girlfriend Gina. Her pivotal moment is a hackneyed one — she tells Vincent to “be [Joey’s] dad.”
The characters of the film are not heroes, they have no tragic flaws. They are simple and rather boring. Like guest stars on Dr. Phil, they blame each other for their troubles and cry when they have breakthroughs. Instead of dramatizing a fascinating true story, Caton-Jones pays lip service to interesting themes and makes only melodrama.