When a man fashions a home underneath the gutter, he's officially
hit rock bottom. This is the fate of Joey Nova, whose
Christian name is Joseph La Marca, son of a cop whose divorce
wreaked havoc on his family, and thus, his son. Vincent La
Marca's family failure has seemed to depress the entire city
of Long Beach, New Yorkit seems the city by the sea
has wept and mourned the last twenty years. Vincent
walks the rotting boardwalk, hotdog wrappers blustering about
in front of rusty carousels. The paint has chipped from the
ticket booths and hotdog stands, tattered banners can barely
muster enough strength for the breeze; all that's left is
a diner serving small portions of greasy relief for the junkies
now haunting the place. Like Frank McCourt's Irish alleys,
the City By the Sea is a graveyard of broken dreams, and like
McCourt's Limerick, the dampness of the town is less a meteorological
condition than a state of mind.
The film is bookended by gilded sunshine, but the rest is
a chilly cesspool of the sort that breeds incurable disease.
The disease afflicting Vincent La Marca was first caught by
his father, executed for the murder of a child back in the
50's. Little Vincent was adopted by the cop who arrested his
father, and spent his life, "Being so good nobody could
say I wasn't." From what we know of his police work,
this may be accurate, but things didn't turn out quite so
well with his family. Vincent may have hit his wife, but in
any case, he walked out on her and his son and burrowed into
the trudgery of cop work in New York. One night, he's sent
to investigate the murder of a dealer named, of all things,
Picasso, and he's hot on the trail of the killer, who just
happens to be Joey La Marca.
Uh oh, for both us and Vincentthis sounds like Arthur
Miller's turf. Usually, when post-Miller playwrights
attempt the Miller-ish themes, they lose their discipline
and end up with a hodgepodge of Oedipal psychobabble, but
to Michael Caton-Jones and Ken Hixon's credit, City By
the Sea eschews Freud and sticks with description. Nowadays
in Hollywood, when psychology meets metaphor, filmmakers tend
to overexplain it, but here, Long Beach smothers the movie
like damp rag and the murk just soaks in. There's a dark puddle
of seemingly years of accumulated drips in the loft of an
abandoned warehouse so forsaken that even junkies go there
to escape; this puddle represents the whole movie: the kind
of stain that breeds guys with sub-human names like "Spider"
As an artistic conception, the film is just fine, if not
inspired in these respects, but it falters in the dialogue.
DeNiro measures the quiet repression of Vincent just rightwe
can believe that Michelle (Francis McDormand) would find him
charming, but we also believe his past indescretions. Too
bad all of this calculation culminates in one of the most
transparent climactic scenes in recent Hollywood. The climactic
scene and the mysterious disappearance of Francis McDormand
undermined the power of the whole picture, which leads me
to a stiff question: Why make a movie of this "true"
story at all? To make money, of course, but so few movies
make money anymore, so there must be another explanation.
I'll offer you this: Journalism can only do so much to tell
a story. The journalistic creed is to worship Objectivism,
but haven't most of us concluded that objectivism is dead?
I think back to Insomnia: Once Will Dormer plants
that first bit of evidence, creates his own story based upon
the events of what may actually have happened, what's the
real difference between him and crime novelist Walter Finch?
The only real difference between journalist and artist is
in the medium: The goal, of course, is truth, the process
of creation based on "real" events is merely the
organization of a coherent narrative that, in the end analysis,
feels like truth. Some might correctly argue
that A Beautiful Mind manipulates the story of John
Nash such to render it officially "incorrect." Those
critics generally use the standard of Sylvia Nasar's biography,
but doesn't Nasar's work also reveal a tendency to be more
forgiving than perhaps it should? I would agree that
the book "feels" more right than the film, but that
is not to say that its journalism is a gold standard of "reality"
or "truth"it's a work of art as well. So
what does that mean for City By the Sea? When
an artist depicts actual people, he raises the gambit of verisimilitudethese
are not his own creations he's messing with, and this requires
the highest respect from directors and writers, who musn't
reduce the living to the banality of ordinary Hollywood movies.
When Robert DeNiro embarasses himself with your lines, you
must do better. The feel of the final ten minutes of this
movie is enough to extinguish my fire for the rest.