I have often wondered if a good reviewer should include bias and favoritism or not. In my early college classes my papers were graded on technical elements, not content. If I used proper language, structure, and any other of the arbitrary rulings my paper could be about the accumulation of bird poop on sidewalks. I have wondered, should I treat movies this way? If a movie is full of good actors and directing should I rate it higher even if I didn’t like it? These are questions I must ask while I review City by the Sea.
I picked this movie up because I found it cheap and it boasted Robert DeNiro and James Franco. On the back the blurb describes this as a story about a cop who has to track down his own son as a suspect in a murder case. I completely missed the part about this being “based on true events” for which I’m glad. It wasn’t until I watched the movie that I realized it also featured Frances McDormand and Eliza Dushku, both of whom are fantastic and made me anticipate the movie even more.
The problem is, I just couldn’t get into the film. McDormand is wasted here, her limited screen time really hurts her character, giving us no reason to not dislike her. Dushku is lazily introduced and underused, and an important plot point for her character was introduced in the same fashion. Robert DeNiro is fun to watch, and I’ll give him credit that he manages to pull off a stoic character who is forced to actually face his emotions. The problem is stoic character can become boring, the emotional investment just wasn’t there.
This movie bounces back and forth between DeNiro and Franco, an emotionless father and a druggie son. People enter their lives and swirl about only to drift away. Part of the problem lies in the fact that going in we know it’s the story of father and son; I really feel that this plot point could have really created an emotional impact had we not known beforehand. I also feel that McDormand and Dushku should have been pushed to the front, make the movie more of an ensemble cast.
If we could have seen Dushku as a recovering junkie trying to provide for her son we might have cared when she was on screen, and as such we might have cared about the fate of Franco since he is her boyfriend. Likewise with McDormand, she feels that DeNiro’s character is emotionally distant, but does not react well when he reaches out to her. I felt nothing but annoyance at this because we have not been given a reason to care about her.
All of this is very tragic, because the movie does feature great actors and some fine performances. It was shot well, with effective location shoots and accompanying music. The pieces are all here, this should add up to a great movie, but as it is it’s very, very average.
City by the Sea gets 2/5.