CITY BY THE SEA
April 8th, 2004
(September 24, 1999 draft) - by Michael Caton-Jones, Frank Pierson, and Ken Nixon
Reviewed by Christopher Wehner
(6/16/02)NOTE: The screenplays we review are often in development and may experience many rewrites, some could end up being completely different than what is reviewed here. It is our hope that our reviews generate more interest in the film. Thank you.
This draft has three names attributed to it including Michael Caton-Jones (the director), Frank Pierson (Dog Day Afternoon), and Ken Nixon. According to the imdb.com, Nixon studied acting at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. He was a stage actor with minor film and television roles prior to making a career transition to screenwriting in the early 1980s. His writing credits don’t inspire up to this point. His screenwriting career began with a thud in 1984 when his first produced script, Grandview, U.S.A., turned out to be a complete failure in every way. In 1997, after a series of mediocre TV credits he rebounded a bit with Inventing the Abbotts.
City by the Sea is the fact-based story of Vincent Lamarca as presented in a 1997 Esquire magazine article by the late Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Mike McAlary. The screenwriters crafted what at first appears to be a meandering narrative, but one that finds itself in the second and thirds acts. Here's the basic storyline:
New York City homicide detective Vincent LaMarca (Robert De Niro) is investigating a murder with his partner Reg. A small time drug dealer is found cut up and beaten to death on Long Beach.
The murder investigation draws Vincent home to the "City by the Sea," where the past catches up to him. Vincent is haunted by the death of his father and a family shame that still hangs over him. Running from his past he forged out a long and distinguished career as a law enforcement officer. Unfortunately, it resulted in a failed marriage and a son he doesn’t really know. A legacy of shame and loneliness has passed on from one generation to the next as his son Joey abandons his own son in favor of a life of drugs and crime.
Soon Joey is the main suspect in Vincent’s murder investigation. When the Police Commissioner learns of Joey’s possible involvement Vincent is taken off the case. As the criminal justice gears start to turn it becomes clear to Vincent that the police have made up their minds as to who the killer is. Vincent tries to find his son and talk to him. This takes him deeper into his past and to the doorstep of his ex-wife. We start to learn a lot about Vincent and his past. Most of it doesn’t paint a pretty picture.
Vincent has a girlfriend name Michelle (Frances McDormand) who lives in the same building as he does. They have an interesting relationship. Both are older and have yet to find themselves. Though it becomes clear Michelle wants a relationship—something a little more meaningful than what Vincent appears capable of giving.
Everything reaches a boiling point when Vincent’s partner Reg is killed while checking out Joey’s hideout. The police are convinced Joey is now a two-time murderer and worse, a cop killer. Now a massive manhunt begins and a police department seeks revenge. At the urging of his ex-wife, Vincent tries to find his son before the police do in fear of them manufacturing his death.
Vincent is a well crafted character by the screenwriters, with a very recognizable arc. He has a past that still haunts him. He has a future that is uncertain. He sees his life, and eventually and most importantly the lives of his loved ones, spinning out of control. He is torn between doing his job and helping his son. There is a lot of drama and conflict in these storylines. Vincent at times isn't always a sympathetic main character, which works nicely in terms of the main narrative. The characters surrounding him are also nicely developed. Some of the other characters, such as the drug dealers and thugs, were more caricatures than anything. For example: "SPYDER, 35, prison build…" and "CARL, a black man with jail-bird muscles…"
The script was a bit cumbersome at times. It was heavy on exposition when it really wasn’t required. (Which was also a plus at some points. See the next paragraph.) Several times the writers provide information as to what a character is thinking or feeling as opposed to showing us. Though it did make the script an enjoyable read. One such example, the writer's description of Joey: "A kid crying out for help but not being heard." I'm not sure how an actor shows that or a director captures it. But for the most part the character touches and the exposition are colorful and strong. For example, in the same paragraph with the above comment the writers tell us that Joey's "a speed addict looking for the score he needed an hour ago." That's where the description should have stopped. I can picture that. I can't picture someone "crying out for help" in the manner they described.
The writers were effective with their dialogue which was witty and insightful. There was also a streetwise edginess to it when required. The writing is extremely literate and bold. The writers provide a narrative with such vividness that the script literally walks you through the movie. Visually its all there on the pages. A screenplay can go beyond being a mere "blueprint" for a movie, as this one does.
I think this is a perfect role for De Niro, and I for one never tire of seeing him play cops or gangsters. Vincent is a little different kind of character than what he’s used to playing. He isn’t loquacious, or domineering. He doesn’t have that edginess as a character that perhaps De Niro will bring to the role, though hopefully not. There is a subtly about Vincent that needs to remain. He’s a guy that can’t get too excited over anything because shit is constantly happening. His own life has been a roller coaster ride. I really feel there might be enough here to get De Niro another Oscar nomination. But we'll see.
City by the Sea is a sometimes enthralling crime drama that lost something towards the end. It’s a story that builds to what could have been a better ending. There was a sequence where Vincent turns in his badge and gun, and then one scene later he brings a social worker home to take his grandson. (Minor spoiler) The mother has now abandoned the baby as well. He and Michelle have words and it appears their relationship is over. This is right in the middle of Joey running for his life. It was awkward and threw-off the rest of the ending. I felt like the screenwriters were scrambling to bring everything together and they missed something. The way they work out the ending was overtly subtle. It works on occasion, Monster's Ball is a great example, but here I felt it wasn't enough. There was a build up to what could have been an exciting and riveting ending, but the stakes never seemed to rise high enough during the last 15 pages or so. Bottom line, this would have made a great TV movie, but I'm just not sure it has enough to be a completely satisfying feature film.
Any heavy-handedness by the director might throw the rest of the story, which is quite good, off kilter. Scottish director Michael Caton-Jones directed De Niro in This Boy's Life. It was an effective drama also based on factual events. If you look at Caton-Jones’ work you’ll see he has shown himself to be a competent director and should do just fine here. His other credits include: Memphis Belle, Doc Hollywood, Rob Roy, and others.