Like Father Like Son
Based upon a true story "City by the Sea" is a movie which has three things going on and depending on which one you follow will result in whether you enjoy it or not. There is this story of a Manhattan cop finding himself on the case of a murdered drug dealer and the man they are after appears to be the cop's estranged son. Then there is the story of abandonment as the cop's own father wasn't there for him, the cop wasn't there for his son and now his son isn't their for his. And then there is the symbolism of the crumbling city by the sea mirroring the relationships. For me it is the story of abandonment which makes "City by the Sea" worth watching because the symbolism is too forced whilst the thriller aspect of a cop and a killer is ordinary.
Having left Long Beach along with his wife and son many years earlier, Manhattan detective Vincent LaMarca (Robert De Niro - The Score) finds himself back in the now rundown city by the sea when a dead drug dealer washes up. As he along with his partner Reg (George Dzundza) investigate the case it becomes clear that the man they are looking for is Vincent's estranged son Joey (James Franco - Spider-man), a druggie with a son of his own. But this personal case forces Vincent to examine the relationship he had with his father, a murderer and that of his and his sons.
So basically there are 3 elements to "City by the Sea" and unfortunately 2 out of the 3 did little for me. The whole symbolism of Long Beach being a decaying seaside resort with the decaying relationship of Vincent and Joey being a parallel is too forced for my liking although the abandoned buildings make for a powerful backdrop. And as for the thriller aspect which sees Vincent having to deal with the fact that the man they are looking for is his own son is surprisingly ordinary. Yes the ending of all this is powerful but before we get there it is slow, laborious and to be frank repetitive.
But then you have the element of relationships and in many ways it seems to me that "City by the Sea" is all about the relationship between father and son, the state of abandonment and the knock on effect of this. And this means that the drama focuses on Vincent who as a child had to deal with the fact that his father was executed for the murder of a child, something which he has not been so much running from but trying to disassociate himself from. The knock on effect of this is the decisions Vincent made to abandon his own family and the realisation that the cycle is going to continue with Joey abandoning his son. It's not that meaty or that deep but deep enough to make "City by the Sea" a thought provoking drama rather than a crime thriller.
What this does mean is that "City by the Sea" is a movie which rests firmly on the shoulders of Robert De Niro as Vincent and this is De Niro returning to give us drama. Now for the most you could say it is a familiar performance from De Niro playing Vincent as the tough cop, a figure of solitude who despite having a girlfriend has no emotional connection. But when the movie steps up a gear and Vincent has to face the feelings towards his father and the knock on effect of these De Niro also steps up a gear and reminds us why he is a great actor, finding the depth of character almost lacking during the first half. It also means that whilst James Franco, Frances McDormand and Eliza Dushku amongst others give solid performances it is all about De Niro's performance.
What this all boils down to is that if you watch "City by the Sea" as a cop drama it is not just ordinary but a bit laborious. But if you get into the whole abandonment issue and the examination of the cyclic nature of emotions which pass through the generations it makes it far more interesting.