What do famously godawful movies Battlefield Earth, Driven, and 3000 Miles to Graceland have in common? Elie Samaha, a rich Middle Easterner who fancies himself a Hollywood producer, that’s what. His production company, Franchise Pictures, funds the vanity projects of huge movie stars — like Travolta, Stallone, and Snipes (The Art of War) — that are so bad no one else in town will touch them no matter whose name is attached, which lets Samaha hang around with celebrities and call himself a producer. The thing is, though, that Samaha’s indiscriminate taste turned the label “Franchise Pictures” into a kind of anti-Good Housekeeping seal of disapproval. Even Franchise’s attempts to be a little choosier have backfired, turning out only middling stinkers, but stinkers nonetheless, like The Pledge and Angel Eyes and David Mamet’s Heist.
So ya gotta approach City by the Sea with a certain amount of trepidation. Sure, it’s got DeNiro and Frances McDormand, Goddess, and the Tormented Boy Wonder of the Moment, James Franco. But it’s also a “Franchise Pictures Presents.”
It starts off slow, but that’s okay, because it doesn’t start off stinking right away. It builds slowly, a tale about a haunted cop, Vincent LaMarca — DeNiro (Showtime, 15 Minutes), natch — and his estranged son, Joey (James “Not Dean” Franco: Spider-Man), who may or may not have killed his local drug dealer. There’s some nice usage of New Jersey’s Asbury Park subbing for Long Island’s Long Beach (the “city by the sea”), the once beautiful, now dilapidated seaside town(s) reflecting the broken-down relationship between father and son, etcetera, etcetera. There’s a lot of abandoned amusement arcades and weathered-gray pier. And it rains a lot, cuz we’re supposed to be sad.
But hoo boy, do things fall apart as quickly as Joey when he gets his hands on some smack. City by the Sea is based on a true story, about a cop whose father was executed for murder and now it looks like his son is going down the same path, and unfortunately, director Michael Caton-Jones (The Jackal) and screenwriter Ken Hixon seem to have forgotten that people say things like “truth is stranger than fiction” to justify things that we’d never buy in a made-up story. City is structured like a fictional narrative but wants to get away with absurdities fiction can’t tolerate, like an inexcusably unexplained railroading of Joey by the local PD. And Vincent’s unlikely family history. Sure, maybe it happened in real life that the son of a murderer became a cop and then saw his own son become a murderer, but it’s hard to take here, particularly when Hixon’s clichéd and contrived script forces the laconic Vincent to spill all to his girlfriend, Michelle (McDormand: Almost Famous, Wonder Boys) — in a scene so awkward it unintentionally elicited guffaws from my screening audience — just before she’d have learned about it all on the evening news. And just how and why did the media get all interested in Vincent anyway?
It’s enough to make you throw up your hands in surrender, and shake your head with pity for these fine, fine actors, forced to pretend they don’t know how awful the script is, forced to pretend their characters don’t notice the glaringly obvious plot point coming a mile off. And we’re forced to watch DeNiro struggle to chew out some of the most painful dialogue ever written, in the big Reconciliation With The Boy scene. It’s downright heartbreaking.
It’s not Battlefield Earth, true. But that’s not really saying much, is it?