Movie Review
The Departed
2006
Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson
B+


why is The Departed Martin Scorsese’s best-reviewed film since GoodFellas? It’s certainly not his best work in that sixteen-year timeframe (I’d personally nominate Kundun, though a solid case could also be made for the documentary My Voyage to Italy). On the surface, it seems to fit pretty comfortably in the “one-for-them” category of Scorsese’s varied oeuvre, the sort of competent-but-minor project he takes up every so often to fund his more personal endeavors. Like Cape Fear, it’s a remake, in this case of the Hong Kong hit Infernal Affairs and, like The Color of Money, it’s a popcorn-friendly movie star vehicle.

And yet a quick look at Metacritic.com reveals a critical consensus rating of 87 (out of 100) for The Departed, the highest “Metascore” for a Scorsese picture since, right, GoodFellas (89). So, what’s the deal here, you ask? Scott Foundas offers a good answer in his review for LA Weekly:
I’d like to begin by thanking the Academy—for snubbing Martin Scorsese. Regardless of their respective merits, Scorsese’s last two pictures, Gangs of New York and The Aviator felt like hat-in-hand pleas for acceptance by an organization that considers Crash, Chicago, and American Beauty among the greatest of recent American films, and which holds Scorsese himself in considerably lower regard than Robert Redford, Kevin Costner, and Rob Marshall.
He’s got a point. While I liked The Aviator and, to a lesser extent, Gangs of New York, I haven’t, come to think of it, returned to either since their opening weekend in theatres. I’ve noticed them on the shelf at the video store, and later priced under $10 in the pre-viewed DVD section, and passed. I’ve spotted them playing on movie channels, and opted to watch something else instead. The Departed isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s a movie I can see myself returning to repeatedly on DVD or cable. It’s, maybe above all, a whole lot of fun and, if not much more than that, well, who cares? Marty’s in his element here—which is to say, he seems to be having fun, too, drawing every bit of colloquial color from his transplanted Boston location and guiding some A-list actors near the height of their respective talents.


Scorsese has spoken a great deal about how he admires Old Hollywood masters like John Ford and Howard Hawks for their ability to work fruitfully within the studio system. They hopped between genres, with producers and corporate bosses breathing down their necks, yet still came to produce interesting, personal movies. It’s a less-is-more, distinctly pop aesthetic, in which art doesn’t so much shine through such constrictions as it manages to thrive within them, sublimely inextricable. During an eight-year stretch in the 1940’s, Hawks made His Girl Friday, The Big Sleep, and Red River, along with a half-dozen other pictures. How many current studio filmmakers are capable of such creative diversity?

Scorsese—who has directed a sports film, a musical, a religious epic, a literary period piece, and a documentary on Italian cinema—may be our strongest active candidate. The Departed could subsequently be considered his most successful balancing act between commercial interests and signature stylistic flourishes. But the fact that it’s finally, clearly a “for-them” suggests the seamless integration of a Ford or Hawks is no longer a legitimate possibility in today’s moviemaking culture.

That said, the film would be worth watching for Jack Nicholson alone, whose master-class in scenery-chewing rivals Daniel Day-Lewis’s Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York. Nicholson’s skill at shifting from grandfatherly warmth to menacing cruelty to sly, knowing humor within the space of a scene remains virtually unparalleled. He’s always Jack, of course, but we buy him as the psychotic Jack Torrance in The Shining, as the world-weary Warren Schmidt in About Schmidt, and here as Frank Costello, a James Joyce-quoting, dildo-packing Irish mob boss. We spot him sitting on a private balcony at the opera, sandwiched between a biracial pair of young model types, and think, “Ah, that’s our Jack,” yet we never doubt this character for a second.

The rest of the all-star cast is uniformly fine, but the only actor aiming to steal away some of Nicholson’s spotlight is Mark Wahlberg. As a police department higher-up, Wahlberg seems to pick up right where he left off a couple years ago in I Heart Huckabees, spewing one-liners with a sort of offhanded intensity and acing every scene he’s in. If there was an outtakes reel played over the closing credits, he would doubtlessly be the guy disrupting the set, prompting irrepressible giggles and bouts of laughter from his cast-mates. I’m already looking forward to the DVD.

The Departed is playing in theatres across the country.


By: Josh Timmermann
Published on: 2006-10-13
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