City by the Sea is overwritten but precisely played.

City by the Sea is overwritten but precisely played.

City by the Sea is overwritten but precisely played.

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Sept. 6 2002 11:36 AM

Parent Trap

City by the Sea is overwritten but precisely played; My Big Fat Greek Wedding has a rare, audience-seducing weapon.

Robert DeNiro can't run from his past in City by the Sea
Robert DeNiro confronts his past in City by the Sea

The earnest, ham-fisted melodrama City by the Sea (Warner Bros.) began life as a somber 1997 Esquire feature, "Mark of a Murderer," by the late Mike McAlary. The article opens with the 1996 discovery of a body in the water off Queens, New York: a garishly tattooed young man stabbed many times, his head nearly severed. The trail leads quickly to the victim's hometown, Long Beach, a onetime resort community on Long Island, overrun since the '70s with poverty and crime. His killer, Joey LaMarca, turns out to be the grandson of Angelo LaMarca, a notorious baby kidnapper electrocuted in Sing Sing in 1958. A family of miscreants? Not exactly. In between the two killers came Angelo's son and Joey's estranged father, Vincent LaMarca—a decorated Long Beach policeman. McAlary uses the stark divisions among grandfather, father, and son to pose the old free-will-versus-genetics question: Was Joey—bipolar, drug-dependent, fatherless—programmed to be a murderer? And, if so, why did his dad turn out so ramrod straight? The article ends with Joey in a hospital for the criminally insane, probably for life, and Vincent hoping to be a good grandfather to his other son's children.

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Let's be realistic: There's no way that a big commercial thriller released by Warner Bros. would end on a note of similar ambiguity. Not at these prices. City by the Sea, directed by Michael Caton-Jones from a script by Ken Hixon, has a tidier, more conventional agenda: It's a sermon against fathers who desert their kids. Its protagonist, Vincent (Robert DeNiro), long ago abandoned his son and, by implication, the city of Long Beach itself, whereupon both went to hell. Now his past—in the form of a dead body—has washed up on the shore of Lower Manhattan, where he's a detective for the NYPD. In the next few days, Vincent will find out which tie is stronger. Is he first a cop—or first a dad to his little-junkie-lost son (James Franco)?

What's supposed to be a grim choice is actually no choice at all, since Joey is essentially innocent: The movie's dead man is not a harmless stoner, as in life, but a thuggish drug dealer whom Joey seems to have knifed in self-defense. (I say "seems" because the killing is murkily staged.) The filmmakers must have felt we'd have no interest in the origins or fate of a genuine murderer. And as soon as that corpse floats to Manhattan (quite a trip from the south shore of Long Island) and becomes DeNiro's case, you know you're in movie-movie-land. The screenwriter has further stacked the deck with a second psycho, a lion-maned drug dealer called Spyder (William Forsythe). He menaces Joey's ex-girlfriend, Gina (Eliza Dushku), then wolfishly licks his chops at the sight of Joey's toddler son. The movie asks: How many absent dads will face up to their responsibilities and come to the rescue? More and more, a good dad is a vigilante dad.

I'm not mocking the film's themes: The derelict-dad motif is, alas, ever timely. What's depressing is the way an astounding true story has been so overembellished and packed with cop-movie clichés that it often plays like a parody. Ten years ago I went with a screenwriter friend to Basic Instinct, and about two-thirds of the way through he leaned over and said, "It's about time for the fat partner to get killed." Sure enough, the fat partner, played by George Dzundza, got blown away a few minutes later. Two-thirds of the way through City by the Sea, I started to think it was time for the fat partner to get killed—and sure enough, the fat partner, played by George Dzundza, got blown away a few minutes later. That he got blown away by someone who supposedly confused him with the 35-years-younger, 200-pounds lighter Joey did nothing to reinforce the movie's would-be gritty realism.

Caton-Jones, a Brit with just enough pretension to confidently mangle great scripts (This Boy'sLife) and great subjects (Scandal), passed up the actual mundane Long Beach for the dilapidated grandeur of Asbury Park, N. J. It's a different style of architecture from a different culture, but it does lend itself nicely to the blue and green hues of which the cinematographer, Karl Walter Lindenlaub, is so fond. This is the sort of film in which characters break into ironic renditions of "By the sea/ By the sea/ By the beautiful sea," and the camera surveys broken Skee-Ball machines surrounded by discarded syringes. It has been a long time since I've heard an aural flashback collage. That's when a character, in a moment of decision, stares pensively into the middle distance while all the big thesis lines get repeated on the soundtrack: "You're like ... his dad." "We have a choice in life!" "Are you a cop or a father ... cop or a father ... cop or a father?" 

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That City by the Sea isn't laughed off the screen is testament to Caton-Jones' attention to actors and to some tightly written scenes. Franco is epically strung out: He doesn't have the dead eyes you see in most junkies; his burning orbs signal there's still a soul to save. (Joey clings touchingly to a pipe dream of a clean life in Key West, as if Florida is where you go to get away from drugs and crime.) As his ex-girlfriend Gina, struggling to stay clean and keep her son alive, Dushku has one beautifully judged scene after another: You feel in her guardedness the depth of her fear. Frances McDormand, as Vincent's lover and downstairs neighbor, Michelle, turns a reactive role into a major force. She carries a marvelous, mordantly farcical scene in which she returns Vincent's keys at the precise moment Gina has stuck him with a grandson he never knew existed.

DeNiro was the biggest blot on Caton-Jones' film of This Boy's Life. He telegraphed the stepfather's depravity and made him into a grotesque. This time, he gets his mugging under control and gives a decent performance—the plainest and maybe the best he has given in a decade or more. DeNiro has gained some weight and in some scenes looks like Danny Aiello, but his acting is lean; he stays inside himself and suggests a man who has spent his life trying to bury things that just won't stay down. His final plea to Joey is florid verging on operatic, but by then he has earned his histrionics. He's a man emoting for his long-lost son's life.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding: a fairy tale of success
My Big Fat Greek Wedding: a fairy tale of success

The indie juggernaut called My Big Fat Greek Wedding (IFC Films) continues to build an audience; and so, on a rainy day in Wellfleet, Mass., I finally dragged myself to the multiplex to watch the film with a crowd of middle-aged vacationers. They had a terrific time, and so, surprisingly, did I. No, it's not a miracle of originality, and the fairy-tale romance at its center—between a Greek ugly duckling (Nia Vardalos) and her WASP Fabio (John Corbett)—is conspicuously underwritten. But there is a long and honorable tradition of broad intermarriage comedies (from the Romans to Abie's Irish Rose to La Cage aux Folles), and this one comes at least shoulder-high to the best. It has been directed by Joel Zwick in a happy, bustling style and acted with madcap ethnic relish; by the time the fabulous Andrea Martin, as Aunt Voula, delivered her monologue about her lump and "bobopsy" to her mortified WASP future in-laws, I thought I'd need a tube down my throat to be able to breathe again.

More important, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which Vardalos adapted from her own one-woman show, has a public, live-theater feel absent from movies these days. I felt myself in the presence of an older audience hungry for the sense of community that XXX or even pandering, middlebrow pap like Road to Perdition and Signs couldn't give them. They loved being included; they loved laughing as one and repeating such lines as, "Man is the head. But woman is the neck and she can turn the head any way she wants." They loved that this movie reached out to them and that they could reach back and make it a phenomenon. Most blockbusters open with $60 million, then drop to $30 million the next week, then $15 million, then $7 million. This one has moved in the opposite direction—the ugly duckling that its oft-neglected audience has made into a swan.

David Edelstein is the chief film critic for New York magazine and a film critic for NPR’s Fresh Air.