May 2, 2007

Movies for Grown-Ups: The Departed

(Tired of seemingly all discussion of movies in this country anymore sliding towards poop fests and other kiddie fare? Me too, which is why I decided to dedicate my Netflix account to nothing but "grown-up" movies, and to write reviews here of each one I see. For a master list of all reviews, as well as the next movies on my "queue" list, click here.)

The Departed (2006)
Written by William Monahan, from the original by Siu Fai Mak
Directed by Martin Scorsese

Just how many Martin Scorsese films have I seen now, exactly? It's a fair question to ask; I'm an amateur film buff, after all, and Scorsese is one of the staples of the amateur film buff, as important to us as Michael Jordan is to basketball fans (or at least I imagine). And according to the Internet Movie Database (another staple of the amateur film buff), I've in fact now seen 14 of Scorsese's films, of the 19 major ones he's directed between Mean Streets (1973) and now. And what's more, for the most part I've enjoyed almost all of them (some more and some less, of course), precisely because they're so different from one another; that much like the best artists throughout history, Scorsese is obsessed with the new, and with always trying out things within the medium of film that he's never done before.

The Departed

So how ironic, I suppose (or perhaps not ironic at all), that one of Scorsese's biggest movies of his career, both commercially and critically, would also happen to be one of his most derivative -- one that from start to finish feels like a simple rehash of his better work, kinda like a Martin Scorsese movie done by a film student who worships Martin Scorsese? I'm talking, of course, about The Departed, which last year garnered Scorsese his very first Best Director and Best Picture Oscars, as well as officially being the highest-grossing movie of his entire career; which is a shame, because in many ways you can see this as the worst film of his entire career, in that it's the one that takes the least amount of chances, the one that most skates by on the reputation of its director and stars.

The Departed

Despite its reputation, the plot of The Departed is simple enough: it's the story of a brilliant cop from a family of petty crooks (Leonardo DiCaprio), who gets sent deep undercover to infiltrate an Irish mob family in Boston led by Jack Nicholson, who also happens to have a crooked cop on his payroll (Matt Damon) who is constantly feeding him information regarding upcoming raids. Both DiCaprio and Damon are aware that the other person exists, but neither knows the other's identity; the entire movie, in fact, is a supposedly complex cat-and-mouse game to see which of them can discover the identity of the other first. Throw in a bunch of famous male actors with hardly anything to do, one unknown female who shows her boobies, and the word 'f---' 237 times, and you got yourself a Martin Scorsese flick!

Or at least this seems to be the transparent reasoning behind the hacky screenplay, penned by newcomer William Monahan, a former Pushcart Prize winner and Spy magazine editor, who in interviews has admitted that he basically gave up on his literary career to get rich off screenplays instead. And boy, that attitude is certainly in play here -- between the scenes that are literally stolen wholesale from Scorsese's brilliant Goodfellas, the limp dialogue, the gaping holes in the plot and the like, it's a script that could literally have been churned out by any 22-year-old with a laptop and a copy of Lew Hunter's Screenwriting 434, and I'm surprised that Scorsese would ever agree to take it on in the first place.

Then again, Scorsese has also said in multiple interviews that The Departed is supposed to be his take on 1950s cheapie B-movie crime pulps, which suddenly causes the weak script to make a lot more sense. But if that was the goal, why not carry that attitude all the way through the entire production? Why not cast only unknown actors, or give yourself the tiny little indie budgets that B-movies typically got during the studio days? Ultimately, Scorsese is guilty here of the same thing Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino were guilty of with this year's Grindhouse -- of taking a genre of film they are fans of, known expressly for the cheap and fast thrills it provides, and then killing the spirit of that genre by adding hundreds of millions of dollars to the budget and dozens of prima-donna Hollywood stars.

It's a problem of myopia, I'm convinced; that once you become as big as a Scorsese or Tarantino or Rodriguez, that once you become used to making movies in the traditional bloated way, it must be almost impossible to see how those traditional bloated elements will actually kill the spirit of the quirky, independent production they get in their head that they want to make. The reason '50s B-movie crime thrillers are so much fun, the reason that '70s exploitation films are so much fun, is precisely because the productions are as far away from traditional Hollywood as you can get: they take the kinds of risks that traditional films can't, tackle the issues that would make most studio executives wet their pants in fear and anxiety, and can get away with it because there's not enough money involved for studio executives to give a crap. Adding tens of millions of dollars to such a project, no matter how subversive the project stays in spirit, inevitably brings the Suits whether you like it or not; and anytime the Suits come to a Hollywood production, artistic trouble is not far behind.

Ultimately I guess I shouldn't complain; even bad Scorsese is infinitely better than most of the dreck masquerading these days as "film-based entertainment," and The Departed is definitely an entertaining trifle with an ending I would've never guessed at. It's just disappointing, I guess, to see Scorsese sorta phoning it in with this particular film, when he could've done so much more -- when he really could have made a faithful recreation of a '50s potboiler B-movie crime drama, simply by picking a better script and casting unknown actors. Obviously it's what the public wants, based on the box-office receipts and the amount of awards the film picked up; but since when has it been an artist's job to spoon-feed the expected to the mouth-breathers of the world? That's the usual modus operandi of the Hollywood industry, and why we end up each year with a billion dollars' worth of fart jokes.

Scorsese is above such things, which is why we amateur film buffs love his work so much; but if he's basically going to rip off his own movies in order to appease this mouth-breathing swarm, there's suddenly no reason to watch his movies either, just as there's no longer any special cache concerning Robert DeNiro being in a film anymore, simply because he's put out so much unwatchable crap in the last decade. Sorry, Marty, but that's just how it is! I'm looking forward to his next film, to be sure; but if you're like me and appreciate Scorsese's work mostly for the unexpected elements they contain, do yourself a favor and just skip The Departed altogether.

Out of 10:
Writing: 5.0
Acting: 8.2
Directing: 9.0
Cinematography: 9.1
Overall: 7.1

Random notes:
--Almost none of actors in The Departed were Scorsese's original choices, and just think of what kind of film this would've been if his first picks had all been available -- Robert DeNiro instead of Jack Nicholson, Denis Leary instead of Mark Wahlberg, Mel Gibson instead of Martin Sheen, Brad Pitt instead of Matt Damon, Kate Winslet as the main female.

The Departed

--And speaking of which, did anyone else wonder why most of Nicholson's dialogue sounds like incomprehensible bats--t, and why the movie is loaded with all these short nonsensical scenes from him that are never referred to again (like throwing a fistful of cocaine over a hooker, wearing a strap-on dildo to a porn theatre, etc)? Well, it turns out that this was Nicholson's prerogative -- that the only way he'd agree to be in the film was if he had the right to improvise his dialogue, as well as add elements to scenes that didn't exist before. This, incidentally, is also why Nicholson has long stringy hair in a world full of perfectly-coifed Irish mob dandies, and why his diehard Boston-bred character happens to wear a New York Yankees cap throughout the entire film.

And this of course gets into a bigger and more troubling issue, which is that Jack Nicholson is no longer an actual actor -- much like Marlon Brando at the end of his own career, Nicholson is now basically hired to show up and act like Nicholson for two hours. And no offense to either Brando or Nicholson, but this is pretty much the kiss of death for any movie -- when an actor gets so famous that they are no longer required to act, but rather have entire movies custom-changed around their own ridiculous behavior and ideas. I just can't stop thinking of how different this film would've been if DeNiro had been available to take Nicholson's part like Scorsese originally wanted, and how I might now be giving an enthusiastic recommendation instead of a reluctant pan.

Best viewed: With a bunch of friends in a party atmosphere, so that you can piss them all off afterwards with your snotty film-school holier-than-thou attitude.

Next on my queue list: The Third Man, the classic Orson Welles adaptation of the classic Graham Greene novel, restored a couple of years ago to its magnificent original condition. I can't wait!

Read even more about The Departed: Amazon | IMDb | Netflix | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 9:27 AM, May 2, 2007. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |