Charlie (Michael Douglas) has been a mess for quite a while. A jazz musician who has battled schizophrenia and manic depression for years has spent the last couple living in a mental hospital. His 16-year-old daughter Miranda (Evan Rachel Wood) has been living on her own in the family home (mom is long gone) having quit school and gone to work at McDonald’s to make ends meet. When Charlie is released and comes home the pair begins to tentatively rebuild their relationship. The good news is that Charlie is taking his meds and handling the real world reasonably well; the bad is that he’s developed an obsession with a legendary cache of Spanish gold doubloons reportedly buried near their dusty California home. When Charlie begins to convince Miranda that he really isn’t crazy--at least when it comes to the treasure--together they begin a Don Quixote-like journey that cements their fractured relationship back together. Forget Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko the ultra-smooth Wall Street guy or as dashing Jack Colton of Romancing the Stone fame. These days Douglas now 62 has said he needs a really good reason to leave his family so this role where he can play a scraggly bearded wild-eyed edge-of-nuts guy is just the ticket. Douglas gives one of his best performances ever as Charlie striking just the right balance of intellect insanity and inherent love for his no-longer-little girl. Plus the man whose on-screen persona has often been all about male vanity is anything but that in King of California. He’s a scrawny whippet of a guy rather than a hunky leading man and it’s a transformation that just may get him another Academy Award nomination. Meanwhile 20-year-old Evan Rachel Wood proves that she really is an acting force to be reckoned with giving a gently nuanced performance as a girl who has had to grow up way too soon yet still completely loves the father who has struggled to care for her as he struggles with his personal demons. First-time writer/director Mike Cahill has done a first-rate job of bringing this quirky funny and slightly poignant story to the screen. Perhaps the reason he’s been so successful is in the company he keeps. A film-school friend of Oscar-winner Alexander Payne (Sideways About Schmidt) Cahill enlisted his producing help for his film along with Payne’s Sideways partner Michael London. King of California bears Cahill’s own stamp however--a combination of terrific visuals that often make wry satiric statements deftly melded with an assortment of memorable characters and situations. Perhaps his biggest strength is in the casting of the film in his choice of the two talented actors who bring a believability and sense of real family ties to their roles. With King of California Cahill begins what looks to be a long and beautiful friendship with moviegoers who love to be transported to interesting and funny places.
Based on the life of New York City police detective Vincent LaMarca City by the Sea vacillates between a true-crime mystery and a family drama. As Vincent (De Niro) investigates the murder of a Long Beach N.Y. drug dealer it becomes painfully clear that his estranged son junkie Joey (James Franco) known on the street as Joey Nova is the prime suspect. Vincent is of course taken off the case but when his partner is killed while pursuing Joey the search becomes the Long Beach police department's top priority--and saving his son from a police department eager for cop-killer blood becomes Vincent's. The fact that Vincent discovers that he has a grandson Angelo doesn't help the situation especially when Joey's supposedly clean ex-junkie girlfriend (Eliza Dushku) leaves the kid at Vincent's apartment when she goes to buy cigarettes and fails to return. Vincent who's always defined himself against his criminal father finds himself forced to decide whether he's a cop or a father and grandfather first a quandary that naturally leads to some pretty compelling if slightly melodramatic scenes for De Niro. Interestingly despite the somber subject matter and the dramatic tone the film still manages a few lighthearted moments which really save it from the pitfalls of its own seriousness.
Sometimes a great cast can make even a mediocre film good and that's what happens in City by the Sea. Even though the dialogue they're given to work with isn't always completely natural--in fact sometimes it's downright contrived--the cast still manages to create a compelling final product. You just can't go wrong with De Niro as a hardened streetwise emotionally distant cop and he makes everyone opposite him look great especially relative newcomer Franco (whose performance as a young James Dean in TNT's James Dean earned him some critical kudos of his own). The young actor swaggers onto the scene like a very young Bob Dylan a hollow-body vintage guitar slung across his back. Of course he's selling it for drugs not heading for a gig. Patti LuPone really sinks her teeth--and catty claws--into her role as LaMarca's bitter ex-wife creating some of the film's most dynamic scenes while Frances McDormand lends her subtly expressive style to the most emotional moments as De Niro's sometime girlfriend Michelle.
Director Michael Caton-Jones delves into the dark side of his imagination with images of a desolate Long Beach: graffiti-covered walls crumbling casinos and a rickety boardwalk--all the detritus of a once-thriving tourist destination. In this grim setting Joey wanders virtually empty streets and beaches where as a child he played happily; meanwhile in Manhattan Vincent is wandering his streets in much the same way. It's an interesting device Caton-Jones uses to show the similarities between the two men and it's as effective at establishing their relationship as the relatively few scenes they have together. At moments like this when the film is making its emotional impact visually it shines; unfortunately City by the Sea relies a little too often on its average dialogue and does a little too much telling and not enough showing.