CITY BY THE SEA
directed by Michael Caton-Jones
with Robert De Niro, Frances McDormand, and James Franco
opens Sept. 6 at Meridian, Neptune, Oak Tree, and others
How fat does Robert De Niro have to get before we no longer take him seriously as an actor? Already verging into self-caricature in his recent films, the once-great thespian is now entering the Brando-ian realm of obese, money-grubbing monstrosity. Perhaps the greedy packagers of this woefully inept fact-based police procedural were thinking back to 1993's This Boy's Life when they reteamed English director Michael Caton-Jones with their star, forgetting that De Niro performance was memorable for its villainy—unlike the dull, lumbering decency of City by the Sea's cop protagonist, Vincent LaMarca.
Ever since Vincent ditched his wife (Patti LuPone) and son, Joey (TV-movie James Dean impersonator James Franco), 14 years earlier and emigrated from Queens to Manhattan, he's been an outer-borough success story. A 25-year veteran of the NYPD, the lieutenant enjoys the respect of his peers and the bed of a too-convenient fellow-resident of his apartment building (Frances McDormand, presumably funding a new Wolf range and kitchen remodel with her few thankless scenes). Back on the piers of Long Beach, a former resort community now gone to seed, heroin addict Joey accidentally kills a dealer, prompting an investigation that leads—you guessed it—to anguished, actorly father-son confrontation scenes.
Will daddy bring his neglected boy to justice? Can he protect his kid from trigger-happy cops? A better question is, will the corpulent De Niro suffer a stroke on-screen? His character is partnered with The Deer Hunter's George Dzundza simply because De Niro—like Pluto in relation to Saturn—looks a little slimmer compared to the massive girth of his co-star. (When Vincent is interrupted from schlepping on his home treadmill, you imagine the intercom buzzer is from an ambulance crew dispatched by City's worried completion-bond insurers.)
Meanwhile, Franco wanders around lost like he's Jared Leto's understudy in Requiem for a Dream, waiting for the inevitable hugs and tears that must attend City's foregone conclusion. Women don't fare much better. Lupone is simply dismissed as a bitch (why did she take this role?), while McDormand's patience with her lover is no less masochistic. (That said, her usual intelligence outshines everyone else on-screen; she's like some alien visitor from a much, much better movie.)
City is based on a true story related in a '97 Esquire magazine article by the late New York Daily News columnist Mike McAlary, who made a principled, stoic hero of Vincent LaMarca. Though City departs radically from the less-uplifting facts of the case described by McAlary, it pays lip service to his interest in free will versus determinism. (LaMarca translates literally as "the mark," as in the damning taint of sin.) Unfortunately, the movie only demonstrates a curse of sheer cinematic wretchedness.
Back to the important stuff: De Niro's weight. The man isn't just a house in City, he's a row house, a brownstone, an entire friggin' block. I couldn't get over it. This isn't some kind of Raging Bull stunt. Instead, the actor is so pasta-sized that when he rushes Vincent's big "I'm a bad father" mea culpa speech of about five script pages into about 30 embarrassing seconds, it's like watching a girdled West Village drag queen impersonating the two-time Oscar winner. At last we have this sad spectacle of cinema: camp De Niro. Give that man a feather boa.
When Vincent actually turns in his gun and badge to his superiors, I repressed a little cheer ("Yes!") for City's sheer awfulness. Descending finally to that meta-clich鬠neither movie nor star could sink any lower.
Yet City does provide a few other minor crap-classic pleasures with its paint-by-numbers plotting (De Niro drag artists, take notes). Vincent's a good guy, you see, because he gives beer to the alcoholic sitting on his stoop. He beat his ex-wife because she provoked him. Later, De Niro muses, "We just pretend we got a choice; it's like our sins," suggesting he's experiencing flashbacks to Mean Streets. "How'd we get this way?" De Niro finally bleats to the clueless Franco. Jesus, pal, you explain it to us.