Not too long ago someone asked me who I thought was the better actor, Robert DeNiro or Al Pacino. My immediate response was to name DeNiro, but with City by the Sea coming on the heels of Showtime contrasted with Pacino’s recent work in Insomnia and Simone, I think the balance of power is shifting, it it hasn’t shifted already. Just exactly how excited is it possible to be at the prospect of DeNiro playing a cop? I mean, the man can play this role in his sleep — and here he sometimes seems to be doing just that. If ever an actor was coasting on the natural integrity he brings to a film, DeNiro in City by the Sea is that actor. It’s not hard to understand why, since Ken Hixon’s (Inventing the Abbotts) screenplay for City by the Sea — its bizarre true-life underpinnings to one side — doesn’t offer DeNiro much to work with. It is a completely by-the-numbers affair that lovingly flaunts nearly every cop movie cliche you can imagine. It’s all there: DeNiro’s character being a good two or three scenes behind the viewer, the bad marriage, the estranged son, even the time-honored order, “Take a week off,” when DeNiro loses his professional objectivity. (Just once, it would be nice to see a cop picture where the chief tells the hero, “The hell you’re taking any time off. Pull yourself together and get back to work!”) The basic true-life story of a cop whose father went to the chair for the accidental murder of a kidnapped child having to track down his own wayward son when it appears the son has killed a cop is certainly intriguing, but Hixon doesn’t know how to explore the material. Instead, he seems to have hammered out a script while wearing boxing gloves: Too much is in broad strokes, and too many of those strokes are nothing but the same thing over and over again. It should be obvious pretty early on — to even the most obtuse viewer — that Vincent LaMarca (DeNiro) and his son, Joey (James Franco, Spider-Man), have some pretty serious issues stemming from Vincent’s original issues with his own father’s history. Hixon is either afraid we don’t get it, or he can’t think of anything else to do, so he makes this same point many times — all leading to the Big Encounter between the two men. Even here, the script doesn’t know when to stop. DeNiro is handed a speech that has “Oscar Bid” written all over it. At first it sounds impressive. Then it starts sounding contrived, until it finally conveys the viewer out of the movie altogether and sounds like the unrealistic speech-making it is. Hixon clearly wanted something on the level of On the Waterfront’s classic “I coulda been a contender.” What he ended up with was a phony acting showcase where all you see are the gears turning. At the same time, he pays far too little attention to defining Frances McDormand’s character – to such a degree that her motivations are constantly unclear. When the screenplay isn’t running aground, Michael Caton-Jones’ direction takes over. The story’s actual setting (Long Beach, NY) must not have been sufficiently seedy-looking, so the filmmakers traveled instead to a grimmer location (Asbury Park, NJ) for the bulk of the shooting, and it feels phony. Similarly, setting the mood for the long-lost 1950′s version of Long Beach by playing a 1935 Guy Lombardo recording on the soundtrack is a curious choice to say the least. City by the Sea is by no means dreadful, but it’s too much an exercise in generic cop movie to be genuinely involving. DeNiro deserves better from a film and DeNiro’s audience deserves better from him.