If it feels like Robert De Niro has just always been around, well … he has performed in credited work for 55 years now. From the unpredictable and often deceptively boyish looseness of early films to his multifaceted late-career journey into action, family fare and comedy, De Niro has endured as an icon for multiple generations (even if some of those first knew him as an animated shark). In honor of the actor’s 80th birthday this month, Midwest Film Journal staff writers and contributors are taking a look at some of his biggest (and lesser-known) roles. Intimidation and insecurity. Belligerence and benevolence. Hopeless romantics and horrific killers. Gangsters and nurturers. This is Bobby’s World.

Vincent LaMarca’s life is like a smudge left to linger indefinitely on glass — smeared with fingerprints of a once-spirited presence now lost to inattention. If Vincent speaks, it’s typically a terse, transactional conversation to gain information for his job as an NYPD homicide detective. 

The few people Vincent engages with outside his professional life tend to talk at him rather than with him. He accepts their sometimes abusive vacancy with a look that rockets past indifference and right into acceptance. A nobody like Vincent expects disdain. Deep down, he’d say he deserves it.

Vincent uses a treadmill, but his waistline is still paunchy; of course, he would choose an exercise routine that racks up miles without distance. His hair is often tangled and tousled, groomed only to the lowest agreeable police-department standards. 

Even Vincent’s outwardly positive courtship of a stage actress named Michelle (Frances McDormand) who lives in his building feels more like a ritual than a romance. Vincent waits by the stage door until Michelle is done performing and walks her home. Any remaining moments of the evening are regimented to the clock’s tick, down to Vincent’s wee-hours march back to his place after postcoital naps.

To a dinner invitation from his partner (George Dzundza), Vincent says “You got a lot of love in your house and it makes me uncomfortable.” He’s so passive it’s hard to believe he’s a decorated cop let alone a character played by Robert De Niro. But perhaps Vincent prefers that neutrality against the alternative.

An old marriage eventually yielded to Vincent’s physical aggression and ended in a bitter divorce. However impulsive and immediately ceased, Vincent’s violence manifested a mean streak that has run through the LaMarca family. That it could overtake and forever define him might be Vincent’s deepest fear, but the last thing he’d do is talk to someone about it. Besides, a lot of people already know. His father was executed when Vincent was 8, after a Lindbergh baby-esque kidnapping plot went horribly wrong and tragedy descended upon the LaMarcas.

Vincent must revisit this history, and other lingering regrets, when his own estranged adult son, Joey (James Franco), inadvertently murders a drug dealer and goes on the run. After all, who could resist resurrecting a generational story of fundamental failure? It’s all the more enticing when a cop is involved and the pursuit unfolds against the backdrop of the other Long Beach. Once a picture-postcard seaside 30 minutes from Manhattan, New York’s Long Beach has fallen into dilapidation and disrepair as a haven for junkies and jerkoffs.

Is City by the Sea a conventionally good movie? Not really. Its visual depictions of despair and addiction ape the aesthetic of those old anti-piracy DVD PSAs. You’ve seen William Forsythe play a drug-peddling dirtbag like the one here named Spider a dozen times before, and he’s given nothing new to do with it. Perhaps sensing an audience’s reasonable disinterest in the murder plot, Ken Hixon’s screenplay tries goosing it with Spider’s graphic gunning-down of Vincent’s partner. The musical score by John Murphy (28 Days Later) is hilariously overcooked and hopelessly dated. When the credits reveal “this motion picture was not actually filmed in Long Beach, New York,” it’s an unintentionally hilarious confession. (The actual New York Long Beach was actually cleaned up about a decade or more before City by the Sea was released.)

And even back in an era when executives mooned over Franco as a possible second coming of De Niro himself, his work here feels about as good as the jock whose turn in the high-school play surprises you just a little bit. Joey’s angst always seems more hip and trendy than genuine, so it’s hard to care what landing in the clink would mean for Joey.

But we care what it would mean for Vincent, even if he’s not necessarily worth rooting interest. He doesn’t have to be “good.” He has to be intriguing. And on that score, there is perhaps no other De Niro movie salvaged solely by the actor himself than City by the Sea.

(Of course, McDormand is also good, but the film generally discards her after Vincent and Michelle confront the consequences of their full-disclosure policy with one another as secrets old and new are revealed. Still, these are terrific actors who believably confront immediate and irreversible complications of their attraction to one another.)

Those chastising De Niro for coasting in the 1990s probably longed for such days considering most of his work in the 2000s (excepting The Good Shepherd, Stardust and the first two Meet the Parents films). Yes, the first two. Don’t front like you would choose any of the following over Meet the Fockers

  • Spoofing Taxi Driver in The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle (which he also produced). 
  • Slumming with Eddie Murphy in the action-comedy Showtime
  • A sad sequelization of Analyze This as creatively bankrupt as its title of Analyze That.
  • Empty-thriller nonsense like 15 Minutes, Godsend and Hide and Seek
  • Reteaming with Al Pacino to chase a rhyme-happy killer in Righteous Kill

Whatever your suspicion of these films: You knew it. Of this work, De Niro should just shout “You blew it!”

Indeed, 1997’s Cop Land was among a better hindsight decade than people remember — amid consistently strong work that included Backdraft, Mad Dog and Glory, A Bronx Tale, Casino, Heat, Jackie Brown, Ronin and Flawless. But amid the wasteland of September 2002, sandwiched between Showtime and Analyze That, De Niro revisited a touch of the subtly developed vulnerability he delivered in 1995’s Heat for City by the Sea.

Mining the same vein as Jack Nicholson in The Pledge, it’s a pleasure to watch an esteemed actor discover new nuances in a story about as old as they come. It’s a sublime reminder of the qualities that made De Niro great, not just a gimmick. Frankly, his honest and quiet restraint papers over all the film’s problems. De Niro infuses each of Vincent’s actions with quiet desperation, and you’ll long for him to make one true choice, any choice, even if it results in his annihilation. It’s an arc toward self-confidence or at least self-awareness, or whatever semblance of either one a sad sack like Vincent can muster. De Niro flashes quite a few thousand-yard stares here and you feel all the daggers flying into his obscured peripheral vision.

Director Michael Caton-Jones has allegedly cited the three years he worked on City by the Sea as depressing. And he essentially left Hollywood altogether after the commercially and critically unsuccessful double-whammy of this and Basic Instinct 2. But he had a knack for pulling great work from De Niro, as the two previously teamed on 1993’s This Boy’s Life. Indeed, there are softer echoes of De Niro’s dangerous hothead Dwight in Vincent’s reluctance to dredge up his demons or meaningfully deal with them. It’s almost impressive how dispensable everything about City by the Sea is, save for inspiring its leading man.

Despite insistence to the contrary, vitriol is often Vincent’s default. Confronted by his ex-wife (Patti Lupone) over the domino effect his desertion had on Joey’s development, Vincent says: “I never walked out on him. I walked out on you.” Even so, Vincent feels a palpable revulsion in even having to think about Joey again. It upends the quiet order he’s cultivated for himself and only reminds him of shortcomings and insecurities he stomped down long ago. In Vincent’s eyes, old movies, good music and fighting advice should’ve been enough for Joey to subsist. After all, it’s more than what Vincent had. His father was dead by the time he was that age. When Vincent riffles through a box of Joey’s childhood treasures, none attached to any memory of Vincent, this cop is apt to find more meaning in the junk drawer of a John Doe.

In a manner that threatens to mire the movie in inescapably melodramatic murk, City by the Sea teases a two-pronged shot at redemption for Vincent. If Joey can only turn himself in to him, he can avoid the certain wrath of the cops, who have pinned Joey for that partner’s murder, too. There’s also a heretofore unknown fourth generation of LaMarca for whom Vincent provides temporary care. But De Niro, and De Niro alone, clears the air with character-driven work. 

More than any second-unit shot of urban decrepitude on Long Beach, Vincent’s eleventh-hour entreaty to Joey plays up the dangerous allure of artifice in promises of paradise. Plus, his insistence that Joey choose this path feels as much like a plea to himself as his son. There is certainly pathos to it … but performative anxiety, too; more than anything, Vincent wants to keep his own name clean. “That wasn’t me! That wasn’t the real me!” is a mantra for both Vincent and Joey (and the rare thematic touchstone Hixon allows to let breathe on its own). Perhaps Vincent choosing an actress as his latest partner was no psychological accident.

As for the grandkid, well … Vincent obviously sees it as a do-over. However, the kid is at an age where survival care is easy. He’s not verbal. He can’t shout back at Vincent. But he will. Muted and internalized as it might be, roaring volume is the only level Vincent LaMarca knows, and he’ll certainly pass on a legacy of leapfrogging past meaningful love to consuming obsession. 

Despite the sepia sunlight, the conclusion of City by the Sea is surprisingly bleak. It leaves Vincent sorting through a tangle of past, present and future to find only a fresh set of thorny lies on which to snag another life — this one a toddler who can’t yet comprehend how he’s been trapped. Vincent might tell himself there’s torture in not knowing the future. But it’s really the torment inherent to his curse of knowledge that the horrible behavior of his family is likely to hurtle headlong into infinity. City by the Sea may be lost to the bowels of De Niro’s filmography, but you’ll continue to think about Vincent LaMarca long after the credits have rolled.