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Movie Review

New York’s Long Beach was the City by the Sea, an idyllic stretch of sun-kissed beach filled with children’s joyous shrieks, classy hotels and tourists looking for a place to relax. Time, however, cut away the City’s beauty and filled it with graffiti-encrusted buildings, the stench of refuse and pimps, gangstas and addicts. Joey LaMarca is one of the latter, the castoff son of veteran cop Vincent LaMarca. Joey’s days consist of begging acquaintances for cash so he can buy another hit of his "medicine." But a trip to a dealer goes bad when a fellow stoner friend can’t pay his tab. The resulting altercation ends with a knife in the dealer’s chest and Joey standing over the body. Vincent and his partner, Reg, get assigned to the case, initially unaware of who they’re chasing. Joey goes on the lam, hiding from his father, the police and the dead dealer’s vengeful boss, Spyder, who’s got an attitude and a gun he’s not afraid to use on anyone as long as it will lead him to Joey.

positive elements: City by the Sea wrestles with a number of noble themes, such as what it means to be a father, taking second chances when they’re offered, recovering broken dreams, the brutality of divorce, acting justly when the pressure’s on and the hideousness of the drug-addicted life. Both Vincent and Joey struggle with where their choices have led them and how they can become good fathers again. (Vincent’s divorce from Joey’s mother leaves him estranged from everyone he once cared for, while Joey’s junkie lifestyle separates him from his girlfriend, Gina, and their son, Angelo.) Director Michael Caton-Jones painstakingly portrays Joey’s substance abuse as a miserable existence where acts of utter desperation—including lies, thievery and self-deception—are simply what’s necessary in order to get the next fix.

Joey tells his mother he longs to be clean from drugs and to travel to Key West. Indeed, Key West seems to be his land of opportunity that he can never quite reach, as is the old romantic version of Long Beach. It’s implied that Vincent’s divorce from his wife, which culminated in physical abuse, was the starting point of Joey’s long slide into the street life. [Spoiler Warning] While urging his son to take a second chance on life and not commit "suicide by cop" during a police standoff, Vincent intercepts a bullet intended for his son.

spiritual content: When Joey tries to bum $20 off a restaurant owner for crack, he’s told that he needs to pray to get straight. Joey replies that he needs money, not a sermon.

sexual content: Vincent cuddles with his girlfriend, Michelle, in bed. When she mentions that she likes cops, he wryly replies, "I’ll show you my . . . badge." Another scene peers in on them lying in bed, presumably after intercourse (no nudity). A snippet of dialogue confirms that they sleep together regularly. Joey has fathered Angelo out of wedlock. Gina lives next to a poorly soundproofed pornographic theater and every scene in her apartment is backdropped with orgasmic groaning. Crude jokes about masturbation and oral sex appear as well.

violent content: Dazed and confused, Joey tangles with a drug dealer. It ends in a vivid depiction of a stabbing. Joey later washes a bloody knife wound on his arm. Vincent and Reg find a lacerated body on the shore. A cop is shot twice with a large caliber handgun, splattering the wall behind him with blood. A gangsta points a knife at Joey when he grabs him by the shoulder. Spyder squeezes a man’s injured hand until he reveals Joey’s location. A man is shot multiple times in the torso during a gunfight (not the only one in the movie). Spyder puts a shotgun to Gina’s head while she’s sleeping.

crude or profane language: As if worried that the Hollywood trend toward PG-13 movies might make profanity go out of style (it hasn’t, by the way), City by the Sea has the distinction of featuring nearly 100 profanities and obscenities, 60 of which are the f-word. God and Jesus’ names are abused more than a dozen times.

drug and alcohol content: Joey uses crack, and while his drug use is persistently presented in a negative light, a protracted scene showing him freebasing is more instructive than necessary. He also smokes regularly and breaks into a veterinary clinic to steal drugs for later sale. Michelle and Vincent drink heavily. Every day, Vincent buys a bottle of beer for a neighbor.

other negative elements: Characters of every ilk resort to shady dealings to get what they want. Cops violate the law by breaking and entering to gather evidence. Gina steals from her employer. Joey tries to sell veterinary drugs to a dealer so he can earn money. Vincent misleads his superiors so he can meet Joey and talk over the crime. Later, he breaks into a suspect’s warehouse without a search warrant.

conclusion: City by the Sea conveys its bleak subject matter and themes with such sharpness that it’s difficult to leave the theater feeling any emotion north of glumness. Take, for example, Gina’s flirtation with drugs. She struggles to stay clean so she can care for Angelo. But when she’s threatened by Spyder, she dumps the toddler at Vincent’s apartment, then heads out to score. Stricken by guilt, she calls Vincent, tearfully confesses and informs him she’s leaving her child with him since she obviously can’t care for him. Emotionally grueling scenes like this are de riguer, rendering the movie’s "happy twist" at the end hopelessly unconvincing.

Like an unscrupulous and half-trained surgeon, City by the Sea correctly identifies the cancers causing familial suffering. Then proceeds to use a dull, rusty pocketknife to extract the diseased cells. Despite its positive themes, the film drowns not only in melancholy, but in violence and obscenity.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

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Robert De Niro as Vincent LaMarca; James Franco as Joey LaMarca; Francis McDormand as Michelle; George Dzundza as Reg; Eliza Dushku as Gina; Michael Dellafemina as Angelo


Michael Caton-Jones ( )


Warner Bros.



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Loren Eaton

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