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.

18 comments:

Ed Howard said...

Pretty harsh indeed. Sure, when considered against the weight of expectation — and against the hype and acclaim — The Departed is not exactly prime Scorsese. But it's a fun movie, for many of the reasons you cite in your review: the wink-wink pastiche of past Scorsese gangster flicks, the over-the-top performances, the Wahlberg, the Jackness. Is it Mean Streets? No, of course not, nor is it Goodfellas or Casino. It's Scorsese's meta gangster movie, a celebration of the genre and an opportunity to indulge in the pure excesses of the action, the suspense, and of course the language. Despite all the ways in which it feels somewhat familiar to longtime Scorsese admirers, and thus perhaps redundant, it actually works very differently from his other gangster movies, as more of a loony comedy, wallowing in the absurdity of Nicholson's character and the over-accentuated Boston accents. It's a very nutty, silly movie, but hey, that's what I enjoy about it.

Craig said...

A distant ninth or tenth best movie Scorsese has made, but I give it a pass for being his only relatively non-Oscar bait release from the late nineties through most of the aughts. Naturally, it's what he finally won for. Doesn't hold a candle to "Infernal Affairs" though, which was carefully concealed as being the source material.

Mercer Finn said...

Harsh. I thought Damon did his Mr. Ripley thing very well. Also (often overlooked) Sheen was amazing. Maybe I wasn't asking for very much, but I thought Wahlberg, Baldwin, Winstone and Nicholson were all delightful. The point of the latter was exactly that he IS larger than life -- a goat-legged Satan rather than a man.

Tommy Salami said...

The Dropkick Murphys were a nice touch on the soundtrack.

It's not his best, but I like to think that Damon's character was secretly gay and hoping for a career in politics, and Nicholson knew. I prefer it to Infernal Affairs, actually.

Kevin J. Olson said...

I'm with ya on this one, Jason. I remember being exhilarated by the film when I first saw it...but then again I think it's hard NOT to be exhilarated by a Scorsese movie. However, the sad reality is that the film just doesn't hold up, and I swear I'm not holding it's Oscar against it. The over-the-top acting didn't bother me so much (I mean look at DeNiro in Cape Fear or Pesci in...anything), it was the fact that the film was, as you say here, in cruise control.

When I went to see it a second time in the theater I was shocked by how bored I was. The beats didn't feel fresh a second time...which is something that rarely happens with a Scorsese picture.

It's an interesting idea for a film...a kind of meta-gangster film like Ed says, but it doesn't go beyond the pleasures something like an Ocean's movie where half the fun is pointing out all of the actors and the fun they're having.

I think The Departed was definitely a touch overrated and it's too bad that the film feels so banal upon subsequent viewings. It's harmless enough, but I much prefer his other films from the 2000's.

I am really looking forward to Shutter Island, though. Great review, Jason.

Jason Bellamy said...

Good comments, fellas.

Ed: It's a very nutty, silly movie, but hey, that's what I enjoy about it.

I wouldn't want to take that enjoyment away. But The Departed didn't feel like "redundant" material so much as second rate material. I believe if anyone other than Scorsese directed it, Scorsese fans would line up to point out all the ways it fails to capture the Scorsese magic. It's poor imitation ... it just happens to be directed by Scorsese himself.

Craig: Is it anymore non-Oscar-bait, though, when you consider the cast and the praise (and nominations) for other Scorsese mobster flicks?

Mercer: The point of the latter was exactly that he IS larger than life -- a goat-legged Satan rather than a man. I agree that's the point. I just can't say I felt that way. It was all such a performance rather than being a larger than life character. It's a fine line there, and very subjective on which is which, but that's how it hit me. Agree with you that Sheen was a highlight ... though after DiCaprio and Farmiga, for me.

Tommy: Yeah, I realized I overlooked the Dropkick Murphys when I re-read this review. But I went with it as written. And I think the larger point still holds. But I'm glad you pointed out that omission. I kind of like your reading of the Damon character, actually.

Kevin: I saw the film on opening weekend and haven't seen it since. The theater was packed and I could tell that a lot of people were thrilling to it, but I didn't get it. I thought Wahlberg was so pathetic that I wanted to crawl under my chair. Yeah, I understand the allure of seeing big stars playing big roles. Beyond that, though ...

Still, I'm looking forward to Shutter Island, too.

Adam Zanzie said...

This is another case where I let my status as a Scorsese fanboy get the better of me. I placed The Departed on my list for the Top 50 Films of the Decade because I still think it's such a damn good movie. While I don't consider it as terrific a picture as The Aviator or Gangs of New York (or even No Direction Home: Bob Dylan), it still rocks my socks off three years after its release. Best Picture of the year? Probably not- I would have named Lynch's Inland Empire or Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima instead. If I wanted to be adventurous I might even charge that De Palma's The Black Dahlia is a superior film.

That being said, I like to think of The Departed as a masterful B-movie. Or Scorsese's Touch of Evil. Hopefully Shutter Island will be his The Trial.

Jason Bellamy said...

I like to think of The Departed as a masterful B-movie. Or Scorsese's Touch of Evil.

I can see that.

Speaking of Touch of Evil ... maybe Wahlberg should have been cast as a Mexican.

Steven Santos said...

I've found the reaction to this movie more and more divisive as time goes on. I liked it more when I first saw it than upon subsequent viewings, but I still consider it a well-crafted though not terribly deep film. I still prefer it over "Gangs of New York" which was a great movie half the time and a complete mess the other half or "The Aviator" which I think is only interesting if you wanted to see Scorsese make a Ron Howard movie.

I'm glad somebody mentioned "Infernal Affairs", which I consider more emotionally involving than Scorsese's picture. The scene where the police captain is murdered is handled so much better, as is the ending. As much as I laugh at Nicholson's line deliveries, his presence throws off the movie and I kept thinking how much better the movie would have been had Ray Winstone (who is genuinely threatening in a less joking way) took over that role.

It's a movie that I consider extremely watchable, but that I don't care much about, which is how I feel about something like "Casino". Personally, I still think the greatest post-"Goodfellas" Scorsese picture is "Kundun". As is everyone, I'm looking forward to seeing "Shutter Island" this weekend.

sophomorecritic said...

i think that the suspense on this film is better

i think this is the film where leo dicaprio first wows us.

i also think baldwin is good and wahlberg deserves an oscar. i think that nicholson wasn't going for realism but a larger-than-life character and so wahlberg had to keep up to match him. i think wahlberg was terrific.

also, it has more suspense than goodfellas. it doesn't have as much as a theme, it's a little more of a fun exercise in cross-cutting

kenjfuj said...

This pretty much sums up my feelings on The Departed. It felt to me like exactly the kind of shallow macho movie that Scorsese's harshest critics have always accused him of making. But yeah, for what it is, it is well put together, darkly funny and diverting enough.

I'm hoping to see Shutter Island sometime today; my expectations are guardedly high.

Neil Fulwood said...

I'd say you're not being harsh at all. Simply accurate. 'The Departed' is the sloppiest, laziest film Scorsese has ever directed. It's a flaccid plod through tropes, musical cues, set pieces and characterizations he has done before - and done much much better - in other films. I've always held that 'Casino', brilliant as it is in places, is too nakedly a retread of 'Goodfellas' ever to emerge as a great movie in its own right. 'The Departed' is nakedly a retread of just about everything in Scorsese's own back catalogue. It's as if, having watched other filmmakers do second rate Scorsese copyism for the last couple of decades, he decided to do some second rate Scorsese copyism himself.

Craig said...

Jason:

Craig: Is it anymore non-Oscar-bait, though, when you consider the cast and the praise (and nominations) for other Scorsese mobster flicks?

True, but none of his other gangster flicks had ever won before, and there was no reason in advance to expect this would either. Marty just lucked out in that it was a weak year. (I couldn't even remember what else got nominated; I had to look it up.) I guess what I'm saying is his style in making the movie seems less desperate than how Steven hilariously described it for "The Aviator." (Ron Howard, indeed.) He dropped the pretentions and made a hyperviolent, foul-mouthed movie that kills nearly everyone off, and on that level I commend him.

Steven:

I'm glad somebody mentioned "Infernal Affairs", which I consider more emotionally involving than Scorsese's picture. The scene where the police captain is murdered is handled so much better, as is the ending.

Agreed. That scene in "Infernal Affairs" is shocking and moving. Scorsese botches its equivalent in "The Departed." Martin Sheen deserved better for his good work in the picture.

PIPER said...

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?

Great line.

I agree. This is not one of my favorites and it was a bittter pill to swallow to see Scorsese finally win for this when it clearly wasn't his best picture. I like DiCarprio in this, but Nicholson killed it for me. Way too over the top and his creep behind DiCaprio at the restaurant where you weren't sure if he had been exposed or not completely lacked in suspense and in turn felt clownish.

I have not wanted to revisit this since originally seeing it, nor do I have any desire to own it with the rest of my Scorsese picks.

You do seem a bit harsh on the picture, but I think it's mostly deserving. I have not seen Shutter Island, but as I told a friend, I can't believe it's a complete disaster because, after all, Scorsese made it. But from what I've heard, it's not a good Scorsese film.

I fear his best films might be behind him. But still, that's an incredible resume.

kenjfuj said...

PIPER:

But from what I've heard, it's not a good Scorsese film.

All I'll say is, I hope you go in with an open mind. I think it's a very good Scorsese film, quite possibly his best in, oh, a decade. And far more impassioned than The Departed. (I haven't written about it at my blog—http://mylife24fps.blogspot.com/—yet, but I hope to explicate reasons for my enthusiasm very soon. And my apologies if that sounded like a shameless plug on my part.)

PIPER said...

kenjfuj,

Fair enough. I will check it out.

Jason Bellamy said...

Piper (and Kenjfuj): For my money, Shutter Island is far superior to The Departed.

Watch Shutter Island Online for Free said...

You should watch the new Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese film Shutter Island. Just as good, if not better than the departed