City by the Sea
dir. Caton-Jones
Opens Fri Sept 6
Various Theaters

Truth is stranger than fiction. Especially in Hollywood, where "based on a true story" has most often meant "embellished beyond recognition from something we read." Surely there are wonderful exceptions ripped from the pages of the paper, but for every Dog Day Afternoon there's a Mothman prophesying in the wings. The latest addition to the long list of not-so-authentic failures is City by the Sea, which reunites director Michael Caton-Jones (This Boy's Life) with Robert De Niro, who is either doing a favor for an old friend or using the paycheck from this plodding outing for the mortgage on his tropical island.

De Niro faxes in a performance as--what else?--a world-weary cop coming to terms with his own homicidal history, while searching the picturesquely derelict town of Long Beach for a murderer who turns out to be his own son (James Franco, doing his methodic best to obscure his insanely good looks).

This dull and labored film, soon to be clogging video-store shelves everywhere, is based on a far more dynamic 1997 Esquire article about a retired police officer whose notorious father was executed for murdering a baby. Vincent LaMarca was "adopted" by the police department, and even married the police commissioner's daughter. But the union dissolved and LaMarca became estranged from his young son, Joey, who grew up to take another human life--just like his grandfather. At the heart of this fascinating story is a fascinating question: Did the murder gene simply skip a generation? Was Joey's fate sealed at birth, or did he have a choice?

While the film follows this plot loosely, there are plenty of problems. It wastes Frances McDormand in a girlfriend role, takes unnecessary factual liberties, clings to its overly conventional narrative, and slathers everything and everybody in a gray sludge only an art director would think genuine. But the worst crime is that Caton-Jones takes this question about atavism (and its terrifying answer) and turns it into a pat homily about redemption for deadbeat dads and murderers alike. And for that, City by the Sea, deserves the chair.