Thursday, February 18, 2010
Not So Mean Streets: The Departed
[With Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island finally hitting theaters tomorrow, after months of waterboarding us with its trailer, The Cooler offers the following review, written upon the film’s release in the author’s pre-blog era.]
It has a superstar cast: Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Martin Sheen, Mark Wahlberg and Alec Baldwin. It has one of the most celebrated directors of all time: Martin Scorsese, whose past works of this ilk include GoodFellas and Casino. And, since it’s based on the hit Chinese movie Infernal Affairs, it has a blueprint to follow. Yes, The Departed has everything you’d expect in a heavyweight film, and so, so much less.
What a disappointment. It’s not that The Departed is boring or careless. This cops-and-mobsters flick about moles burrowing into and out of the criminal underworld has double-crosses in bulk. And, per usual in a Marty movie, the film is chockablock with tough guys, violence, accents, street speak, short-tempers, f-bombs and fellatio references. But it all feels fabricated. This isn’t quintessential Scorsese, it’s a movie with a bunch of guys who have grown up watching quintessential Scorsese doing poor impersonations of what they think it means to be in one of his films.
Nicholson hams it up. Baldwin hams it up. Although neither of those is a surprise. Wahlberg really hams it up, and the kicker is that his tough-talking, Baahstaahn-tongued detective Dignam might be the least convincing character in the movie, even though Wahlberg was raised on the boulevards of Bean Town. Go figure. Damon, meanwhile, looks completely star-struck. Playing Colin Sullivan, a double-agent for the mafia working as a Massachusetts police officer, Damon pulls off the well-ironed golden boy part, but all too well. There isn’t a trace of authentic roughneck about him. I had a hard time imagining him doing anything worse than under-tipping, and each time Damon uses profanity he has a kid-in-the-candy-store twinkle in his eye that makes him appear a second away from turning to the camera and yelling, “Mom, I’m in a Martin Scorsese movie! Can you believe this!?”
One thing’s for sure, Will Hunting could kick the crap out of Colin Sullivan any day of the week. So could Billy Costigan. Played by DiCaprio, Costigan is the policeman who goes undercover inside the organized crime web of Frank Costello (Nicholson). To get accepted into the fold, Costigan proves his mettle by smashing a glass over a thug’s head and then beating another guy with a coat rack. Through this act, Costigan is desperate to prove his loyalty to mob, but he really seems to enjoy it. DiCaprio, starring in his third straight Scorsese picture (previously Gangs Of New York and The Aviator), isn’t the guy I’d have chosen to become the director’s new favored actor – the second coming of Robert De Niro – but to his always plentiful intensity DiCaprio is steadily adding depth. His Costigan is one of the few players who doesn’t appear to know that he’s on a film set.
If DiCaprio’s performance isn’t the best in the film, then that honor belongs to Vera Farmiga as Madolyn, a woman inconceivably romanced by both Sullivan and Costigan. One could rightly question how much her character really counts in this male-dominated saga, but there’s no doubting that Farmiga, who looks like a cross between Sarah Jessica Parker and Robin Wright Penn, fully invests herself in the performance. Madolyn’s confusion over her love life has an urgency that Costigan’s unease with his dueling identities lacks, which makes it all the more frustrating when Farmiga’s character disappears from the story without a hint of resolution.
None of this is to imply that every Scorsese movie requires the meticulousness or epic sprawl of The Aviator. At 152 minutes, The Departed is as bloated as a latter day Jake La Motta, yet its upbeat pace and overflowing charm provides the film with levity. Alas, instead of being splashed with flippancy, we’re drowned in it. Whereas in GoodFellas audiences cackled and cringed through Joe Pesci’s famous “How am I funny?” scene, here the threats of Nicholson’s Costello, Wahlberg’s Dignam and Baldwin’s squad captain Ellerby seem as empty as Fenway Park in December. It’s all wink-wink, instead of wink-wince.
Am I being overly harsh? To a degree. I respect that by making another movie from the mean streets that Scorsese is operating under his own immense shadow. But anyone who tabs The Departed as some return to form is missing the central themes of the director’s gangster oeuvre. The Departed isn’t kin to Casino. It’s the foul-mouthed stepbrother of Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven. This is a gleaming, star-worshiping crowd-pleaser. It’s Scorsese goes popcorn flick. That’s fine and good, I guess. On the other hand, what’s the point of having a legendary filmmaker with the clout to get studios to bend to his whims if he doesn’t ask the mainstream to so much as tilt their heads?
The Departed is Scorsese on cruise control. For proof, look no further than the soundtrack, which includes tracks from the Beach Boys, John Lennon, Van Morrison and the Rolling Stones, including – for the third time in a Scorsese picture – the song “Gimme Shelter.” I’m not asking for Kanye West here, but could we at least leap into the 1980s? Given the Irish mob connection, some classic or even contemporary U2 would have seemed appropriate. But instead of looking retro, Scorsese comes off as behind the times, or like someone going through the motions. It’s all so safe.
Along those lines, maybe the presence of Nicholson, who is unrestrained in his Jackness, provides too much of a good thing as the mob demigod. His performance may pick up an Oscar nomination, but to me it feels like an empty caricature. Over the course of Scorsese’s career, the director has had a hand in creating some of film’s most unforgettable scoundrels, from Travis Bickle to Bill the Butcher, but Sadistic Nicholson doesn’t belong in their company. He’s truly frightening only if you have courtside tickets to the Lakers. Even when the bullets start flying and bodies start falling, the characters of The Departed never feel as tough and unhinged as their reputations. This is a movie about false identities that, appropriately or not, delivers sheep in wolves’ clothing.