Bad Dads, Worse Moms
Things look bad for Joey Nova (James Franco). Sunken-cheeked and slouching against the wind, he staggers along the Long Beach, Long Island boardwalk, so desperate for a hit that he’s trying to sell his guitar for $40. At first, this blustery moment appears to be a rock bottom for our boy. But then it’s hard to tell, exactly. It’s possible that Joey Nova loves his music and will miss that guitar. But it’s just as possible that he just stole it and it means nothing to him but the means to his next high.
Michael Caton-Jones’ City by the Sea is full of such riddles, made more conspicuous because the bulk of what happens on screen is so tidily overwrought, emblazoned as “meaningful.” Most events have too much significance (not to mention contrivance) and most of the actors adopt a mournful sincerity that makes every glance seem weighted with meaning. So, it’s not enough that Joey Nova (the name he’s earned around the neighborhood because he loves his car—of that you are assured) is a sad-sack junkie who’s long been estranged from his father, Manhattan detective Vincent LaMarca (Robert De Niro). Joey Nova must also commit a murder and become the target of a police hunt, presenting dad with quite the dilemma. (That said, Joey’s not a wholly “bad” murderer, though his dad doesn’t know that yet—he only knifes a particularly skanky dealer while in the throes of a movie-style addict’s fugue, so Joey is not completely “responsible” and remains “sympathetic” for viewers.)
And it’s not enough that Vincent must face the fact that his son is a murderer (the dealer’s body happens to wash up in his jurisdiction), but he must also recall that his own father was a notorious child killer, executed at Sing Sing. To add insult to injury, Vincent must also confront his rather severe (if wholly understandable) anxiety over maintaining control, which means he has to visit, however briefly, with his ex-wife and Joey’s mother, Maggie (Patti Lupone, wasted, like every other woman performer in this film). At this point, you learn that, not only did Vincent abuse and abandon her some 14 years ago, but he also never even inquired after his son once he took off. This makes him a bad dad, but it also appears to make Maggie a bad mom—so angry and bitter that she’s allowed her son to deteriorate to his hopeless state (really, there’s enough blame to go around in this movie, but she So, he’s carrying some serious guilt, on top of everything else, guilt that turns into panicky cruelty whenever he gets near Maggie.
All these horrors in one family might easily lead to questions concerning genetics and proclivity, codes of masculinity and violence; and, given the currently circulating Ward Weaver(s) story, each of these subjects becomes a little more topical. Indeed, these questions are raised by the film’s source, a riveting 1997 Esquire article by the late Mike McAlary, called “Mark of a Murderer”. It’s easy to see why the filmmakers considered this tale a worthy outline: quite compellingly, its focus on the “genetics” question stems from its focus on the story of Vincent trying so hard not to be his father, Angelo, who committed a preposterous crime (the month-old child died by accident, during a kidnapping Angelo committed for the money).
The article spends comparatively little time with Joey, leaving his story to unfold in Vincent’s sorrow. Screenwriter Ken Hixon and director Caton-Jones revamp the details, focusing on the Vincent-Joey part, and rigging it so that the detective is not retired when his son is sought, which he was in “real life,” and instead, tracks him down himself, so that they might share a tearful and, this being a cop movie, bloody, embrace. In other words, the film is overcooked and sensational, a pile-on of clichés instead of an even remotely sincere investigation of the questions that seem so pertinent.
The sensational elements are equally strained and predictable. City by the Sea‘s clichés are padded with metaphors, such that Joey hides out in a derelict casino with a hole in the roof, so that he can see jets fly by on their way to what he imagines to be the Florida Keys (his imagined promised land, based on a family vacation when he was a child, recalled in home movie images). He gazes on a map of Florida. The light grows dim. The plane roars away in the distance. Aha, you notice, Joey’s dreams, like those of the area in which he grew up and from which his father ran like crazy, are fast ending.
Obviously, all such images and events are arranged to bring about Vincent and Joey’s reconciliation. Worse, all characters are fodder to achieve that end. Vincent’s girlfriend Michelle (Frances McDormand) is reduced to telling him he needs to be a good dad, then disappearing. Maggie just happens to arrive on a murder scene (who knows how far this may be from her home, or how she knew to be there, or how she got there). She wails after her ex, “You’re his father!” And when Vincent’s partner Reg (reliable and reliably dead-meat George Dzundza) says of his happy family and home-cooked meals, “You’re gonna miss it when it’s gone,” it’s obvious that he’s going to pay the ultimate price for being buds with Vincent, precisely in order to make the latter’s burden of culpability that much more unbearable.
With all this stuff happening in the present, you’d think the ghosts would lay off, but no. Unfortunately, the film condenses the McAlary article’s consideration of Angelo to a newspaper clipping and a few DeNiroean shuffles and grunts, as he tries to explain his various deceptions to Michelle. Why, she wants to know, has he never mentioned to her that his dad was executed, that he has a son, that his ex-wife lives a few miles away, that he’s haunted and troubled by his past? Well, he mumbles, now he is telling her: doesn’t that count for something?
Because Michelle is apparently infinitely patient, she’s willing to help her man, difficult, selfish, and gloomy as he is, to work through some of his monster-sized issues: be a good father, she says, because this is not clear enough to him yet. But he does have a chance, maybe.
The news is less hopeful for Joey. Unbelievably—in the sense that the plot can’t seem to get out of its own way—his many demons loom even larger than Vincent’s. Most immediately, he’s menaced by the snarling, neon-sign-named, and majestically inked biker-dealer Spyder (William Forsythe, who could play this character in his sleep, and effectively does). This lug believes that Joey has stolen money from him. At the same time, Joey, afraid to become his father (wife-beater) or his grandfather (child-killer), is turning into exactly them—both. He abandons his own baby and girlfriend Gina (Eliza Dushku), who in turn becomes the film’s very worst mom, an out-of-nowhere “character development.” Gina’s crash-and-burn, fleeting as it is, may be the most painful moment in the film, because it is so very plainly engineered to allow Joey his own chance to become a good father.
As masculine melodrama, City by the Sea is at once standard and weak. Each struggling to be stoic, potent, and aggressive, Vincent and Joey only end up being selfish and violent, unable to see a way out. Though the film implies they both learn hard lessons about generosity and forgiveness, the final image—a familial unit nominally “at peace,” but static, removed from community, and tellingly void of women—suggests otherwise.