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Robert De Niro is a great actor, and at the end of City by the Sea, he gives such an emotional speech that he seems to be earning an Oscar, right before your eyes.

Unfortunately, at my screening, someone got up to speak to someone else, right at this crucial moment, and it broke my concentration. Now I can’t tell whether the performance was truly moving or just calculated to look that way. The interruption broke the spell I had been under, and maybe that means the spell wasn’t all that strong to begin with.

City of Hope

De Niro tries to save his son in saving City by the SeaCity by the Sea, “based on a true story,” tells of a New York City police detective (De Niro) investigating a murder that, it turns out, may have been committed by his son.

The film gets its title from its setting, Long Beach, Long Island. There are only a few scenes devoted specifically to the setting, but they are strong enough and widespread enough to give the movie a sense of place.

The setting also sets the tone for the movie, because Long Beach is a symbol as well as a place. According to the characters in the film, Long Beach was planned as a perfect community. When De Niro’s character was just starting out in the biz, everything in Long Beach was new and beautiful Everyone was moving into their first house, driving their first new car home from the city to their picture perfect suburb.

None of that remains now. The concrete is cracked, the buildings are abandoned, the boardwalks is left to the pushers and the users. It’s not surprising that the character of a city should change, but it is surprising how fast Long Beach changed. One lifetime, one career is enough to see the birth of something with the promise of lasting beauty, and to see the death and decay of that promise.

Hook, Schmook

The setting adds a nice piece of texture to what could otherwise be a rather conventional cop drama. De Niro plays detective LaMarca. He has a partner named Reg (George Dzundza). He doesn’t talk about work with his girlfriend Michelle (Frances McDormand). Scenes of him at work are pure police procedural.

The movie’s hook — that LaMarca’s own son is the prime suspect in a murder investigation — is not nearly as interesting as it seems like it ought to be. Joey (James Franco) is such a caricatured addict, and De Niro is such an iconic cop, that there is no sense of surprise or irony. Both characters are exactly who they seem. The father-son relationship seems almost entirely unimportant.

Cracking Shells

The situation proves to be fertile, though, especially for someone as good as De Niro. He could play an NYC detective in his sleep, but he goes one better. He takes his character home from work. When his partner invites him over for dinner, De Niro turns him down, dismissively mumbling “You got a lot of love in you house... I go there and feel uncomfortable....” It’s such a sad and painful statement, but De Niro’s shell is so thick that it doesn’t hurt him to admit it.

Maybe the best thing about City by the Sea is that it takes place during a time in LaMarca’s life when that shell starts to crack. The fact that his son may be in trouble brings to the fore all the things LaMarca’s been trying to hold back. Two scenes in particular stand out.

In one, LaMarca, after a yearlong casual relationship with Michelle, has to tell her everything he’s been keeping from her — that he has a son, that he has an ex-wife, and that he abused his ex-wife. He had managed to start over, painful as it was to walk away from his son. He had put this part of his life behind him and become a different person. But when the past resurfaces because of Joey’s suspected crime, there’s no hiding from Michelle.

In the other — the scene I mentioned at the beginning — LaMarca has only a few minutes to convince Joey not to make the same mistakes he made, and his shell completely cracks under the pressure.

In the End

Take away De Niro, and City by the Sea falls apart. It’s just another conventional cop drama because its hook fails to grab. Even if my audience hadn’t been a distraction, I would probably still be disappointed in much of the film.

And yet, in the end, I like City by the Sea because of De Niro’s performance and the plausibly hopeful message he conveys.