LOS ANGELES, Sept. 5 (UPI) -- "City by the Sea" is a minor but ultimately effective low-key "true story" about the crimes and tragedies that affected four generations of one family.
Even with that ultimate Real Man movie legend Robert De Niro starring as -- prepared to be stunned by this novel casting concept -- a veteran New York City police detective, "City by the Sea" is sure to be derided as better suited for a TV Movie of the Week. Studio films are so male-oriented these days that it can sometimes seem like the only way a family relationship movie aimed primarily at a female audience can get greenlighted is if it's about men, as in this father-son male weepie.
Hollywood's current anti-female bias seems economically counter-productive. Chick flicks -- which don't require digitized monsters, expensive bang-bang-boom-boom, or $20 million dollar leading men -- are cheap to make. Perhaps their drawback is that they aren't readily conducive to sequels.
"City by the Sea" is based on the Esquire magazine article "Mark of a Murderer" by the late Mike McAlary. De Niro's character, retired cop Vincent LaMarca, begins investigating a murder case where the main suspect turns out to be his estranged crackhead son (James Franco, the Green Goblin's kid in "Spider-Man"), whom he hasn't seen since his divorce from his hostile ex-wife (Patti Lupone, the original "Evita" on Broadway).
(In reality, LaMarca had already retired to Florida with his wife. On a promotional junket, the actual LaMarca endearingly explained to the Chicago Southtown Economist: "Whose life is interesting enough for you to pay $10 and go sit in a theater for an hour and a half and be entertained? I know mine wasn't unless you 'Hollywooded it up.'" Still, movies sacrifice the thrill you get from a well-reported magazine article of knowing that an unlikely story must have actually happened.)
Soon, the local tabloids get hold of the story and point out that when Detective LaMarca was 9 years old, his father was executed at Sing-Sing for the death of a child he had kidnapped. A newspaper headline helpfully speculates in 144-point type: "Killer Gene?"
This setup resembles that intriguing meditation on the role of nature vs. nurture in criminality: "Bedtime for Bonzo." (Bet you didn't see that analogy coming!)
In that much chortled over but seldom seen 1951 film, Ronald Reagan plays a liberal scientist who wants to marry the daughter of the dean of his college. But the dean, an old-fashioned hereditarian, resists because Reagan's father is a career criminal. The reactionary old fogy wrongly believes that Reagan could have inherited a flawed character. So, to prove that environment matters more than inheritance, Reagan resolves to raise a chimpanzee to know right from wrong.
Today, scientists understand a lot more about the power of heredity than they did in the "Bedtime for Bonzo" Era, when experts blamed social conditioning --especially faulty toilet-training -- for all the ills plaguing humanity.
Still, as so many famous novels and movies have recounted, fathers and sons often differ radically in traits that may be linked to violent tendencies, such as aggressiveness and impulsiveness. Indeed, some recent genetic studies have suggested that some of these attributes are more likely to be inherited from a male's mother than from his father.
Unlike McAlary's gene-focused article, the script places the blame for the son's crimes on Detective LaMarca's not being around to raise him right.
LaMarca approved of this change, saying: "You don't blame (your mistakes) on your genes. I am my father's son ... and I became a cop. And I think a good cop. ... So, that (murder gene) is a crock. My kid made his choices. He blamed it on the drugs, but he made the choice to take the drugs. He can blame it on his surroundings, but he made the choice not to get out of there. So, he is accepting that and I am accepting that."
Frances McDormand (an Oscar-winner as the pregnant sheriff in "Fargo") plays De Niro's blonde girlfriend, who is amusingly dumb-founded that she's gotten her restrained WASP self involved with all this Italian opera-scale dysfunction.
The star chiefly relies on those patented dozen or so Bobby De Niro facial expressions that have become so familiar over the last three decades. He mostly takes it easy until his impassioned monologue in the last few minutes reminds us slightly of the days when his volcanic explosiveness got him labeled "the greatest actor of his generation," despite his obvious lack of range.
While De Niro's impassivity keeps the excessiveness of the plot in check, I fear the 59-year-old looks a little over the hill. Dramatic acting is physically demanding, especially for a Method actor like De Niro, who tries to feel the same emotions -- and thus the same exhausting adrenalin surges -- as his character.
Rated R for language, drug use and some violence.