There is an awful sadness in a place that nobody loves.


An Illusion review by Joan Ellis


            You might not stick with “City by the Sea” if you had a zapper in your hand.  The movie rolls through the familiar landscape of police headquarters and the problems of a troubled cop, landing finally in an ill-fitting pool of sentimentality that diminishes what has gone before.  Why go?  James Franco, Robert De Niro, Asbury Park, NJ, and Manhattan Island. 

                For a sense of the story, picture Lt. Vincent LaMarca (De Niro), son of an executed child murderer whose crime played out on the front pages when Vince himself was only eight.  Vince has lived a life of atonement for the family shame by being a good homicide detective in lower Manhattan.  His own failure:  he walked out on his wife Maggie (Patti LuPone) and son Joey (James Franco) when Joey was fourteen.  For Joey, it was a downhill plunge from there to the drug landscape of Asbury Park, NJ (called Long Beach, LI in this movie for some reason beyond my imagining).  After Joey murders a street dealer, father and son head toward a reconciliation that may be too late in coming. 

The professionalism of Robert De Niro and Frances McDormand shines through an unremarkable script.  McDormand’s Michelle has a sureness that is the gift of experience while De Niro has the weary heaviness of a man carrying an emotional burden.

James Franco sparks the movie.   It is his job to put us in the shoes of a young man not just down on his luck, but just about out of time.  Joey is sodden from drugs, but rippling with a subtle, if submerged, desire to get clean.  He is a son whose heart was broken at fourteen, still a little boy who would step back to start all over if only he could.  Given the mediocrity of the script, Franco’s performance is genuinely moving.   

The real star of this show is Karl Walter Lindenlaub, director of the photography that seizes our attention and holds it.  He conveys the reality of Manhattan as an island by filming it from above, usually at night when the city is a glimmering rectangle of lights slit by its long, straight avenues.  Switching from New York, where Vince lives, to New Jersey where Vince and Maggie raised Joey, the camera captures the forlorn, frightening quality of a city not just gone to seed but vandalized and destroyed. 

Once the recreational gathering hub of the New Jersey shore with its fine beaches, grand movie theaters, and superior amusement park, Asbury Park is now a burned out war zone.  Switching with its characters from this violated landscape to the glorious vitality of Manhattan, twenty miles across the water, is an arresting piece of camera work.  There is an awful sadness in a place that nobody loves.  It is this emotion that explains, far more strongly than the script, the heartbreak of the three generations of LaMarcas who were raised there. 


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