Saturday, February 24, 2007

The Departed--A Review

So, in preparation for Oscar Night tomorrow night, I saw The Departed last night. The buzz around this movie was pretty positive, and there is a chance that Martin Scorcese might finally win his Oscar for this movie. Best Picture? Possibly. Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 90+% freshness rating.

Do I agree? Well, in the interest of full disclosure, I don't think I've actually seen any other entire Scorsese movie. I've seen bits and pieces, and I know his gory rep, but I haven't seen one in its entirety before. So, I can't compare itdirectly, but based on this one alone, I wouldn't go out of my way to see more.

As you probably already know, The Departed is a remake of the Hong Kong movie Infernal Affairs, which I also haven't seen. But since the plot had already been worked out, I'd have liked to see this be more than just a clever crime romp, with some gratutitous violence and language worked in. There were hints of it, but the movie never slowed down enough to really give us effective personalities, and so it felt like a roller coaster ride, but it could have been more.

The plot can be summarized as follows: Matt Damon and Leo DiCaprio are Southies (Boston) who grew up to be state police. Matt Damon owes his allegience to Southie Irish crime lord Jack Nicholson, and keeps him tipped off to police efforts to intercept his deals. Leo is browbeaten into "dropping out" and infiltrating Nicholson's outfit so the police can catch him. Matt is on a career fast track, ending up with the choice job of tracking down the mole in the police force. Leo is horrified at what Nicholson does, and increasingly fears for his life. In the end, the two suspect each other, and there are a series of showdowns and a lot of gunfire.

This could have been a tenseand emotional story about the conflicts between a man's honor, his ethics, and his obligations. Matt Damon is on a career fast track--does he never wish to be free of Nicholson's leash? Hard to tell. Leo is forced to participate in worse and worse crimes, and he finds himself doing very bad things in order to do the "right" thing. He starts taking pills to ease his anxiety, but the way he pops them, it's hard to see that they aren't Rolaids or Tylenol. He certainly doesn't act any differently before or after taking them.

Jack Nicholson? He's is one crazy bastard, that's for sure, but why does Matt Damon stick with him? There should be some kind of appeal to this guy. In the first few scenes, we see a schizophrenic personality--he's violent, then crude, then genuinely kind (buying groceries for the young Matt Damon)--that sort of see-saw personality is hard to escape. As soon as you are convinced he's insane, he does something that draws you back in. I don't see how Damon profits from his connection emotionally. I'd like to see Leo being drawn in against his instincts--instead, these three characters are all just two dimensional. Someone bought him groceries, so Matt Damon never thinks twice about suborning his own life to Nicholson's. DiCaprio is just trapped and horrified, but wouldn't it be darker and twistier if he caught himself being a bit attracted by this new life?

Which is, I guess, why I wanted to stop the roller coaster ride and get to know these people better. Otherwise it's just--good guy does bad for good reasons to catch a bad guy; bad guy pretends to be good, and then everyone gets shot and dies the end. If we saw how these deceptions affected these guys, if we saw how DiCaprio's sacrifices were actually helping to build a real case against Nicholson, if we saw costs of keeping the police ignorant of the undercover guys' identities. . .that's a movie that actors could sink their chops into.

Instead, we get a series of speeches that convey the ideas but not the emotional meaning behind what is happening. DiCaprio goes berserk, demanding the police arrest Nicholson for all his felony murders so DiCaprio can get out alive. Martin Sheen says "we're building a case" so DiCaprio has to go back. A case for what? What info do they need to close the trap on this guy? Wouldn't you be more invested if you could see how this particular deal was going to make or break this case?

Apparently, Scorsese's version adds some class and ethnic conflict to the original story. Maybe--there is some minor turf battle between the Italian Mafia from Providence and Nicholson's Irish boys in Boston, but it's not nationalistic--it's business. You can't have the boys from RI collecting protection money from the patsies in your town, right? Who cares what their ethnic background is? Plus, except for a couple of outbursts from Mark Wahlberg about "lace curtain Irish," there's very little sense that these lives are very different from the more privileged lives lived by Leo's "uncle" or the police psychiatrist. No sense that Matt Damon doesn't fit in where he iss because of his Southie background.

If you are looking for some fast footwork and some tough guys turning on each other at breakneck speed, then this is a fine movie. I tend to think that the Academy rewards movies that are "A Big Night At The Theater" with the Best Picture Award. The Departed is a bigger picture than either Little Miss Sunshine or The Queen, but not really something I'd give that award to.

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