City by the Sea (September 6/02)
Though the commercials and trailers make it look like a high-octane thriller, City by the Sea instead turns out to be a surprisingly low-key drama about (of all things) relationships.
Robert DeNiro stars as Vincent LaMarca, a New York City cop who's got a comfortably routine life. He's good at his job, has a partner he genuinely likes, and is in the middle of an ongoing relationship with a woman in his apartment building (Frances McDormand). But everything changes when the son he walked out on over 15 years ago is accused of killing a low-life street type. Joey (played by James Franco) isn't much of a prize - he does drugs and generally hangs out with a bad crowd - but he's got a son of his own, so Vincent tries to help him however he can. But as things progress and another murder occurs, Vincent finds himself unable to continue on the case.
City by the Sea, for the most part, is an effective look at how Vincent deals with the various people in his life. The relationship he has with McDormand's character feels real; it's not one of those perfect movie relationships where everything about it is predictable. It doesn't hurt, either, that McDormand is fairly close to DeNiro in age (she's not quite as old as he is, but she's also not in her 20s). Then there's Vincent's relationship with his son, which is very poor (not surprising, considering he hasn't seen the kid in years). Vincent wants to be able to help the boy, but since there's no trust between the two, that's easier said than done.
It's the stellar acting that makes these various relationships seem believable. DeNiro, finally appearing in a non-stupid comedy, proves that's he's far too good an actor to be squandering his talent on the sorts of films he's been making lately. And James Franco gives an intense performance that certainly keeps him on the same level as DeNiro (the two seem believable as father and son, and Franco's acting never seems out-of-place next to DeNiro).
There are a few thriller-type elements to City by the Sea, but for the most part, it's a drama. And though it goes on a little too long and some sequences stretch believability just a tad, it's worth checking out for the performances.