THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


City by the Sea is based on a real-life story that offers an intriguing moral dilemma: what does a good NYC cop do when his own son is accused of murder? Does he do his duty as a cop and bring the kid in, or does he offer fatherly support? And, more importantly, is it possible to do both simultaneously?

Robert DeNiro plays Vincent LaMarca, a veteran homicide detective. LaMarca's days are all the same. He gets up at the crack of dawn to work the job. When he gets home, he opens a beer and watches TV. Later on, he walks his downstairs neighbor Michelle (Frances McDormand) home from the Broadway theater where she works. They make love at her place and then he goes back upstairs to sleep, ready to repeat the process the next day. Meanwhile, his estranged son Joey (James Franco) wanders around Long Beach's decayed boardwalk trying to kick his drug habit. He's not successful, and one particular transaction goes wrong. Joey ends up killing a dealer in the process.

The cops begin looking for Joey, and LaMarca is stunned to learn that his son has been accused of such a crime. When another officer is killed during the investigation, it appears that Joey may have been responsible for that death as well. LaMarca is taken off the case, but he continues to seek out information. He learns that Joey has a girlfriend, Gina (Eliza Dushku), and a little boy. Eventually, Joey calls him for help, insisting that he didn't kill the cop. They meet on the boardwalk, the first time they've seen each other in years. The discussion soon turns to the past, as they explore the reasons for their estrangement. LaMarca wants to "help" Joey by getting him a good lawyer; Joey wants his father to help emotionally more than legally. He wants someone to believe in his innocence.

City by the Sea is a moral drama, and I almost always find myself hooked by those. It explores the dilemma created by LaMarca's desire to be a good father while also being a good cop. It's a tough balance, made tougher by the fact that he's been a lousy father for a long time. He sees this as a chance to redeem himself, to prove that his actions didn't necessarily account for his feelings. Although he believes firmly in the value of the law, LaMarca can't stand the thought of his own son going so tragically off the rails. The movie is effective in conveying this, as well as showing the pressure LaMarca is under trying to take care of his grandson and maintain a healthy romantic relationship at the same time.

James Franco plays the troubled son of Robert DeNiro in the drama City by the Sea
This is the kind of role that has Robert DeNiro written all over it. The actor excels at revealing the inner torment of characters, from Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver to Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull. This time, he shows us what's inside a more normal guy. His scenes with James Franco (who had the title role in TNT's James Dean) are excellent. Joey never out-and-out blames his father for his drug problems, but LaMarca feels a certain amount of responsibility nonetheless. The father/son dynamic here is the heart of City by the Sea, but DeNiro also has some good moments with Frances McDormand. Their relationship is complicated, too. LaMarca doesn't want to blow it by telling Michelle his sordid family secrets. Although I liked the subplot, I'm kind of surprised to see McDormand in what is essentially the generic "girlfriend" role. The actress is so talented that she could probably elevate the phone book. I can only assume she took this mostly-thankless supporting part because she wanted to work with DeNiro.

City by the Sea is a good film that yearns to be a great one. I think it fails in one simple area: the ending. For the majority of its running time, the movie is about the attempts of the father and son to reconnect. In the balance is the son's freedom from incarceration, his proof of innocence in a cop's murder. LaMarca comes to believe that Joey is telling the truth. He wants to keep his boy out of prison and help him make something of his life. It's a compelling issue, but the ending cops out. Without giving anything away, there's kind of a forced "happy" ending that leaves several issues unclear. By this point, I was invested in knowing what happens to Joey. The film gives you a general idea, but isn't specific enough to be satisfying. It feels like there is 3/4 of a plot, followed by a sudden, tacked-on conclusion. I'm all for ambiguous life-goes-on endings, but in this case the potential payoff lies in whether Joey is found innocent or guilty and how that effects the new relationship between father and son. City by the Sea glosses over both issues.

For everything leading up to that - and for the excellent performances - I feel this is a movie worth seeing. We may not get the answers we want but there's still a lot of value in the questions the film asks.

( out of four)

City by the Sea is rated R for language, drug use and some violence. The running time is 1 hour and 48 minutes.

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