True-crime stories are an enduring Hollywood staple, even when they depart so far from truth that the credits have to say "inspired by" rather than "based on" to cover the screenwriter's tracks.
"City by the Sea" falls into this category. Taking its cue from a 1997 article in Esquire magazine, it weaves an uneven web of fatherly love and drug-scene violence against the background of a decaying New York suburb.
I'm sure some viewers will find these ingredients an emotionally potent combination, but I found the movie as divided against itself as the dysfunctional family it portrays.
Robert De Niro plays Vincent LaMarca, a Manhattan homicide cop whose estranged son, Joey, is implicated in a drug-related murder.
It's sadly ironic that this upright detective now faces the task of arresting his own son insists on it, in fact, staying on top of the case even after his superiors take him off it, since he's convinced it will make things safer for Joey.
The situation grows even stranger when we discover what his colleagues and relatives already know: that his father was executed years ago for killing a kidnapped child. On top of this, he himself has been guilty of domestic abuse, as his former wife angrily reminds him when she learns that violence has once again invaded his life.
Does the family of this disciplined cop carry a "bad gene" to quote a newspaper headline in the movie that has afflicted every generation but his, notwithstanding his one-time episode of violence against his wife?
Or does all this violence spring from the less mysterious evil of poor parenting, a psychological menace that Vincent has largely overcome by channeling his angers and frustrations into police work?
These are fascinating questions for a movie to explore, and "City by the Sea" is powerful and provocative when it faces them directly.
Not content with the character-driven aspects of their story, though, screenwriter Ken Hixon and director Michael Caton-Jones have injected an overdose of naked-city action into the picture, juiced up with formulaic suspense scenes and overdone music pumping away in the background.
De Niro is excellent for an hour or so, but he doesn't seem fully involved in his role for the last third of the film, when the gnarly plot twists and talky dialogue are too cumbersome for even his great creativity to handle.
Frances McDormand and Patti LuPone are solid as his girlfriend and ex-wife, respectively, and James Franco is just right as his wayward son.
They're a talented team. Too bad the movie doesn't live up to their abilities.
Rated R; contains violence and foul language.