There's no Hollywood gloss to speak of in City by the Sea -- every character has a grungy, outer-boroughs brokenness that's totally life-sized. This is more a strength than a weakness of Michael Caton-Jones' film, but it leaves things so workmanlike that the movie blends into the cinematic woodwork. Still, a movie should hardly be blamed for refusing to elbow its way into the spotlight, and City by the Sea is a nice enough little cop noir set among the detritus of a splintered family and a broken-down New York boardwalk town. At its best moments, it resembles the kind of blue-collar American story a director like Sidney Lumet would have made in the 1970s. At other times, it tries a little too hard for thematic parallels between characters, resulting in some clunky, overly expository exchanges in the dialogue. Robert De Niro leads a cast of actors who effectively disappear into their roles. Fresh off a series of contrived characters in contrived movies, De Niro willfully downsizes to something more organic and small, which also pays homage to his New York roots. It's a successful endeavor. Frances McDormand initially seems too WASPish a choice for Vincent LaMarca's gruff-cop world, but she soberly crystallizes some of the issues facing him about choices and responsibility. James Franco goes deeper than his matinee-idol looks, arriving at a place where the audience has no trouble believing him as a skuzzy junkie. It's the strong character development in Ken Hixon's script that eventually creeps up and gives City by the Sea whatever emotional resonance it has.
by Derek Armstrong review