That's the question on a lot of critics' minds as Robert De Niro, perhaps the greatest actor of his generation, flits from role to role, like a hummingbird. When was the last time De Niro seemed fully engaged? In GoodFellas? Since then, there have been a lot of bit roles and a lot of comedies. At first, it was a revelation to see De Niro in straight-ahead comedies like Analyze This, even though he was playing variations on the goombah roles from his past. But do we really need Analyze That? And did we ever need Rocky and Bullwinkle? Finally, will De Niro ever get back in the ring with roles like Travis Bickle and Jake La Motta and Rupert Pupkin?
He may think he's done just that with the drama City by the Sea, where he plays Vincent LaMarca, a New York City detective whose father was executed for murder and whose son may wind up with the same fate. Based on a 1997 Esquire article by Mike McAlary, City by the Sea is one of those fathers-and-sons movies. Years ago, Vincent walked out on his wife (Patty LuPone) and son (James Franco), leaving the movie to ponder whether the son, Joey, turned out to be a junkie/thief because of heredity or environment. Was there a killer gene in the LaMarca family that magically skipped a generation, or do we choose our destinies?
To answer that question, director Michael Caton-Jones soaks us in the atmosphere of Asbury Park, New Jersey, posing as Long Beach, New York, the so-called City by the Sea. Once a popular resort town where New Yorkers went in search of sun and fun, Long Beach is now a junkyard of shattered dreams, where even the seagulls seem a little depressed. If ever an environment could cause one to commit a crime, this would be the one. But when we first meet Joey, trying to sell a stolen guitar so he can score some heroin, we can tell he's incapable of murder. The voice is too soft, the eyes too watery, the cheekbones too James Dean.
Franco did a magnificent impersonation of Dean in a TNT biopic last year, but his pretty-boy sensitivity, even under all those layers of grunge, throws this movie off a little. Not only does Franco's Joey seem incapable of murder, he seems incapable of stealing that guitar. As for the real-life Joey, who felt he was a natural-born killer, he seemed capable of anything. In what may have been revenge or merely a thrill-kill, he stabbed a guy over and over again, then slit his throat, nearly severing the head. For the movie, thanks to scriptwriter Ken Hixon, Joey's charges have been reduced to self-defense, a drug deal gone bad.
That does allow Vincent to fight for his son's future rather than accept it as preordained, and De Niro's nothing if not a fighter. He's put on some weight for the role and allowed his eyes to go a little dead. (Aging Bull, anyone?) And he's gone to the barber and asked for a Buttafuoco cut, long and wavy in the back. When the movie opens, Vincent is both weary and wary, conducting himself as if one wrong move will land him on Death Row. Only his relationship with his girlfriend Michelle (Frances McDormand) offers a respite from the guilt Vince feels, both for things he's done and things he hasn't. De Niro and McDormand are great together, by the way.
De Niro might have been great all by himself if he'd had better material to work with. Alas, City by the Sea is no Atlantic City, where Burt Lancaster regales Susan Sarandon with tales of the good old days, then adds, "The Atlantic Ocean was something then." But it does have its moments, as when Vincent, asked by his partner whether he wants to join the family for dinner, declines, then adds, "You gotta lotta love in your house. It makes me uncomfortable." City by the Sea goes way over the melodramatic top in a final scene that should have had De Niro tossing the script out the window. But before that, he's as charismatically drab as he's ever been.