What goes through Robert De Niro’s mind when he selects his scripts? There was a time when almost every film he appeared in, good or bad, had a reason for being. Lately, he’s become boringly ubiquitous in badly scripted movies that all seem to run together. Films like 15 Minutes, in which he played a bellicose New York police detective, and Showtime, in which he was a grumpy cop opposite Eddie Murphy, did him (and us) no favors. De Niro used to hold out for roles that would challenge him, but now he’s the hardest-working man in show business – except that the work is none too stellar.
In City by the Sea, which was directed by Michael Caton-Jones and written by Ken Hixon, he once again joins the ranks of law enforcement. Maybe that’s his problem – maybe he should stop playing cops. As New York homicide detective Vincent LaMarca, De Niro plays a bleary man blearily. Intensely private, Vincent lives by himself in a crummy apartment. His closest personal relationship is with his precinct partner Reg (George Dzundza), but it’s far from consoling. Fourteen years ago, Vincent ditched his wife, Maggie (Patti LuPone), and young son, Joey (James Franco), in rundown Long Beach, Long Island, and joined the NYPD. Now a body has washed up in Vincent’s jurisdiction, and it turns out that Joey, a junkie, is the prime suspect.
Loosely based on a 1997 Esquire article by the late Mike McAlary, City by the Sea is a compendium of clichés about fathers and sons. Vincent regrets being an absentee father and wants to save Joey even as he tries to nab him. Vincent’s own father was executed in the fifties for a kidnapping in which the kid accidentally died, and Vincent, who was 8 at the time, has never lived down the ignominy. It’s why he became a cop – to make amends. Vincent holds himself responsible for Joey’s predicament, and the movie at times seems to endorse that view as well. But it also lays the blame on Vincent’s father. When word gets out to the press about the murder investigation, the tabloids scream KILLER GENE, and we’re meant to see the truth in the rant. The film is a bizarre amalgam of watered-down Freud and biogenetics: It’s saying that Joey suffers because of paternal neglect, yet it’s in his blood to wreak violence anyway.
One reason City by the Sea is so inert despite all the hyperactive melodrama is that Vincent never breaks out of his own skin. He’s a lumpen prole who suffers mostly in silence, and the role plays all too easily into De Niro’s worst current habits. He’s dulled himself out in the service of a phony kitchen-sink pseudo-realism. For De Niro, less has become less. He rouses himself a bit in the big confrontation scene with his ex-wife, mainly because Patti LuPone keeps him on his toes; and he has some tender moments with Frances McDormand, as the neighbor with whom he is having a casual affair. But De Niro used to bring the ordinariness of his loners and crooks and malcontents to vibrant life by making them horrifyingly funny. (At his best, De Niro helped us to revaluate the ordinary.) There’s a doughy sameness to much of his serious work now, whereas in flat-out comedies like Wag the Dog, Analyze This, and Meet the Parents, he’s enjoying himself immensely. There seems to be less at stake for De Niro when he does comedy now, so he’s refreshingly unfettered. He’s not weighed down by all that greatest-actor-of-his-generation blather. If he keeps appearing in movies like City by the Sea, he may not have to worry about the burden much longer.
As is often the case when I watch Jean-Luc Godard movies now, I found myself staring at his new one, In Praise of Love (Éloge de l’Amour), in a state of rapt annoyance and befuddlement. It’s constructed in two sections, which are far more fractured and opaque than the simple description I will here try to set out. In the first section, a director named Edgar (Bruno Putzulu) is putting together a project – he doesn’t yet know whether it will be a film, opera, book, or play – about the stages of love as experienced by three couples, young, adult, and elderly. The second section is an extended flashback during which Edgar visits a husband and wife who fought in the Resistance and is shot in dazzlingly saturated color digital video. (This stylistic switcheroo is typical of Godard: The present is black-and-white, the past hyperbright.) The old couple are in negotiations with a Hollywood agent representing “Spielberg and Associates” to sell their story to avoid bankruptcy. Needless to say, Godard is not on the side of Spielberg and Associates – or Americans, for that matter – who, through one of his stand-ins, he accuses of “having no real past, so they buy the past of others.” At least this zinger is more provocative than some of the film’s other pensées. Like this one: “It’s not whether man will endure but whether he has the right to.” Did I mention that the director in this movie is composing a cantata for Simone Weil?
I think Godard lost his way a long time ago, in the post-Weekend years. Or, to be more exact, he has pioneered a way that leaves me cold. I can admire the stunning compositions and prickly, elegiac tone of movies like Hélas Pour Moi (1993) and For Ever Mozart (1996), but there’s something forbiddingly closed-off and inhuman about his work. (I admit to being far from a completist when it comes to “late” Godard. I’m not that masochistic.) Despite the revolutionary changes he has made in film grammar, Godard seems to have canceled out his feelings for people, which were always the essence of his greatness. We wouldn’t have cared so deeply about Breathless and Masculin Feminin and La Chinoise and Weekend if they hadn’t offered us not only a new way of looking at cinema but also a new way of looking at men and women, especially if they are youthful.
The artful shards and lyrical dissociations in his movies of the past two decades are far more tolerable than the logorrhea of the agitprop films that immediately preceded them, but what’s missing for me now is human content. Godard uses his characters – if that’s not too glorified a term – as art things, mouthpieces, visual motifs, blanks. He has become the monkish master of a private domain in which he no longer has any clear comprehension or even interest in how people really live their lives.
City by the Sea
Directed by Michael Caton-Jones; starring Robert De Niro.
In Praise of Love (Éloge de l’Amour)
Directed by Jean-Luc Godard; starring Bruno Putzulu.