We all know what the last three Martin Scorsese movies have in common: They star Leo DiCaprio. Now, let's look at what separates them.
Gangs of New York, an uneven but fascinating drama of 19th-century Gotham thug life, came from a book that had long obsessed the director: It was, in short, a passion project for Scorsese. The Aviator, an overwrought and overlong portrait of high-flying kook Howard Hughes, was developed over several years by its star: It was a passion project for DiCaprio.
So, The Departed, an elaborate crime thriller based on the Hong Kong policier Infernal Affairs--who's it a passion project for? Well, on the evidence of the film, I think we can easily deduce the answer to that. It's a passion project for the people whose jillions of bucks went into it.
You know the type: big-budget movie as business deal. Take X number of top-dollar stars (here including Leo, Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen and Alec Baldwin), add in a top-drawer director (that's Marty), a highly charged, high-concept genre script, plus all the production value that $100 mil or so can buy, then sit back and watch the box-office receipts pile up.
So what if there's no artistic passion? Aren't audiences so dumbed-down and TV-besotted by now that they won't know the difference?
I took my friend Nick, a discerning young cinephile, to see The Departed, and when we came out--after more than two and a half hours of watching Beantown cops and criminals frenetically but rather monotonously chasing each other around with guns, grudges and cell phones--he wearily complained of having just been immersed in "an extravaganza of male sexual inadequacy."
That analysis had not occurred to me, and I offer it to anyone who might wonder what the film is actually about. Nick says it's about "a bunch of guys who can't get it up" and therefore spend their time anxiously fixating on their male cohorts and enemies, with predictably violent results. That of course struck me as a pretty good description of the Bush foreign-policy team, but Nick said all that the "toxic testosterone in the movie proves is that cell phones are rotting our brains."
I asked Nick what The Departed owes to Infernal Affairs, which he had seen. "All the cool plot moves--and all the stuff about cell phones--are in it," he replied. "All the bloated Hollywood fat is not." In adding that the Hong Kong movie is "a crisp 90 minutes," he provided a damning four-word summation of the distance between the world's smartest, most economical genre cinema and this painfully overstuffed American imitation.
Speaking of genre, what do Martin Scorsese and genre filmmaking have to do with each other? It's an interesting question. Scorsese's films often depend on genre touchstones and elements, and he is a legendary cinephile with an encyclopedic knowledge of the great genre directors. But he himself is not really a genre filmmaker. (Cape Fear, perhaps the closest he's come, is lame enough to prove the point.)
If The Departed had any hope of being a really sharp and successful--albeit blithely soulless--entertainment, it should have been helmed by some supremely skillful hack like Tony Scott. With Scorsese at the controls, we get a movie that falls between the barstools--not really a Scorsese film, yet not a lean, mean, brutally efficient thrill machine either.
The film was scripted by William Monahan. Variety's review notes that Monahan claims not to have seen Infernal Affairs but to have based his work on a translation of the original Chinese screenplay. Is that supposed to be a virtue? If you asked me what The Departed's script most suggests, I would say "a movie translated from Chinese." Which in my book is not a compliment. Actually, Monahan is very deft with tangy dialogue, and the movie's full of flavorful moments and bits of punchy repartee. But it is stupefyingly overwritten, with scads of scenes so uniform in their pacing and tone and tough-guy verbiage that I was looking at my watch by 30 minutes in.
Curiously, these scripting excesses seem to contain rather than unleash Scorsese. While some viewers will no doubt be hoping for a Boston replay of GoodFellas, the director's most overrated and self-imitative film, The Departed only makes a rather perfunctory stab in that direction. Sure, we get hefty dollops of violence (though nowhere near as baroquely lip-smacking as in GoodFellas) and the obligatory-unto-embarrassing Classic Rock aural wallpaper, from "Gimme Shelter" in the first scene onward.
Yet--in a way that recalls the dubious restraint shown by Brian De Palma in the yawnsome Black Dahlia--Scorsese doesn't use the sprawling crime-saga pretext as the occasion for flights of stylistic acrobatics. Maybe because the script is one heavy slab of marbled dialogue after another, with little breathing room or space for visual dynamics, the movie's packed with functional compositions and repetitious rhythms. There's nary a tour de force scene in sight.
As for the acting ... it's Acting, with the capital in case you forget to be impressed. If this were Stella Adler's High-Testosterone Academy for Aspiring McQueens and Brandos, most of the students would get top marks. The problem is, that's what the movie feels like: acting class, filled with the kinds of over-determined scenery-chewing that calls attention to itself rather than to the film.
DiCaprio, as a tightly wound state trooper gone undercover in a crime gang, makes the strongest showing, followed by the more flamboyant supporting turns of Wahlberg and Baldwin. Damon, trying to be gruff and complicated, makes a game effort but ends up seeming constipated. In the thankless role of the Obligatory Female, Vera Farmiga, playing a police shrink who's romanced by the DiCaprio and Damon characters, does solid work against the limits of her character's formulaic scripting.
As for Jack Nicholson, who plays the crime boss, you weren't really expecting him to inhabit this movie rather than chewing his cud in the greener pastures of the Great Nicholson Cinema Franchise, were you? C'mon. Jack's no longer an actor, a star, even a major Hollywood icon. He's the tallest float in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, full of helium and bobbing over the heads of mere mortals without a glance downward. His work here is its own movie, and it's one we've seen too often before. It will, of course, have great appeal to the millions who relate to movies as an extension of David Letterman or Conan O'Brien.
Incidentally, the movie's story hinges on twin deceptions: While DiCaprio's a cop infiltrator in the mob, Damon's a mob mole in the police. Naturally, the two end up chasing each other through an elaborate hall of mirrors. It's a neat concept with many precedents in Hong Kong cinema, including John Woo's wonderful The Killer. In an American context, it has a particular sort of potential--the expressionist sort, brought to brilliant perfection by Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock, in which psychology (of the characters, the story, the movie) shapes all outward, visible reality.
Various recent movies have suggested American films are losing their sense of psychology, as a dimension of human beings and of movies. But The Departed is an especially sad example of this, since in Taxi Driver Scorsese created one of modern American cinema's great examples of psychological drama with an expressionist setting.
What does his latest movie think it's saying? Who knows? Maybe it's more about male sexual inadequacy than its creators realize.