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The Departed (Martin Scorsese, 2006)

In the theatres at Silver City with Krystle as part of the ongoing effort to maintain our little weekly movie viewing.

I loved Infernal Affairs, but as great as it was, I could never shake the feeling that the film never did as much as it could have with its premise. Look at Heat, it's a fairly "standard' cops & robbers plot but Michael Mann puts the psychology of the characters to the forefront and in doing so elevates the film to art. In IA, the filmmakers had the perfect setup to make an even better film! It could have been the film Francis Ford Coppola always talked about making: a film that shows how a good man becomes bad and a bad man becomes good. If ever there was a film that begged for a remake, this was it! And then I hear that Scorsese is remaking it?! Sign me up!

What a mess. You figured with the combination of IA's fantastic plot, Scorsese, and the cast that this movie would manage to get at least something right. Wrong! They added a bunch of bad things and took out all the good things. If only it were a mere crappy by-the-numbers imitation, it probably would have been better.

Props to Jack Nicholson for managing to fool Scorsese and his editor into thinking that this movie is about him. Even if he doesn't technically appear in more scenes than the two REAL leads, it sure feels like it. There's no justification for the lengthy screen time he manages to get. He's the same freakin guy throughout the entire film, unchanged from the first to last scene. Each scene feels compartmentalized; they exist only to allow him to showcase his Shining-esque crazy personality but do nothing for the overall film (assuming you don't count interrupting, dragging and lengthening).

Lucky for him the other guys have him covered. Martin Sheen plays his character well I guess but he gets screwed by the script. His character only exists as a touchstone for DiCaprio's, but all their scenes together are plot-oriented so there's no chance for any sort of organic relationship. You can't expect audiences to empathize just because a man says "do this for me son", you've got to earn it (reminds me of the typical Hollywood ploy to make the audience feel two characters falling in love by combining a catchy contemporary pop song with a montage of the characters doing various couple-friendly activities). When his character died, I didn't care one bit, I never knew ye. Alec Baldwin and Mark Wahlberg's characters are compartmenatlized caricatures as well (same for their scenes). In fact, it's precisely Wahlberg's comedic presence in all the DiCaprio-Sheen scenes that ruins any possibility of the audience feeling any sort of relationship develop between the two.

So many elements of the film as well felt like Scorsese trying to imitate Scorsese: the token Catholic references, as if he's throwing a bone to his auteurist fans so they have something to tie it back into the rest of his oeuvre. The swearing was also surprisingly excessive for such a light film. These characters are way too funny and the film way too easygoing to have this much profanity and have it feel organic. Even his choice of music seemed completely off.

As for Vera Farmiga, well, I suppose there's nothing bad to say about her, not just because she has beautiful eyes :) but because she's really just functional. That's a shame because I think about the only potentially good change that they made in this movie was having her caught between Damon and DiCaprio. Unfortunately that whole thread was barely touched upon before promptly getting lost in the mix - the story of all the other threads in this movie.

As for the juxtaposition of the two main leads and/or their struggle with their deception, it's even less present than in the original. Here they don't even know each other and Damon's character really gives no hint of switching teams until it actually happens at the very end. There is nothing going on beneath the surface of this film, which completely invalidates the need for such a lengthy prologue. It's rather ironic given that Goodfellas and Casino are two textbook examples of prologues that are efficient, entertaining and informative all at once.

And the whole production value of this movie stunk - usually the one thing you CAN count on from a Hollywood production, and particularly with a Scorsese one. There was really nothing interesting to speak of in terms of framing or shot selection. It all seemed pretty standard to me. The editing was abrupt for no good reason (in the beginning I actually half-believed it was caused by the projectionist cutting too much when splicing reels together), most notably that crappy Wahlberg addition to the ending which conveniently ties up all the loose ends. Nicholson is supposed to be the kingpin of Boston but it's only something that we're told and never really see or feel. I honestly wonder if it was an intentional joke to have the Baldwin-Damon scene at a crappy driving range compared to the scene in IA where they're hitting the balls into the ocean off the rooftop of a skyscraper.

Like usual, the vitriol doesn't match the isolated feeling about the movie. It's just another case of being so angry at a film with so much potential that was a complete letdown in every category.

(EDIT - 10/24/06 - Psychological complexity & the Face/Off connection)
Elaine's comment reminded me of another connection/point I wanted to make sure I remember about this movie. All the reviews/reviewers will certainly talk about the IA/Departed connection, but another film that deserves to be thrown into the mix - and which might even be better than IA - is Face/Off (John Woo, 1997).

Take the scene in both IA and Departed where the dying bad guy suspects the Leung/DiCaprio character of being the rat. In the Departed, DiCaprio really has no friends in this gang, he's portrayed as an outsider, and so appropriately he has no issue with immediately pulling his gun on the baddie. There's some good tension during this scene as we wonder if he's going to be ratted out but that's about it.

Juxtapose that with IA, Leung's character is the bosses most trusted right-hand man and he's the "cool kid" among all the other gang members, the "fat kid" (as Elaine calls him) in particular seems to aspire to be him. As he dies, they're alone in a car, so the immediate tension of being found out is not present, but this instead allows it to be replaced with a psychological dilemma within Leung's character. As the fat kid recounts how he knows Leung wasn't there, we sense the thoughts racing through his mind: "oh crap, I've been exposed! What should I do? I need to kill him! But how can I? This guy is one of my best friends, he looks up to me. What do I do?!" The twist here is that the kid legitimately believes that Leung is not the rat, but knows that others will suspect he is if they found out what he knows, so being a good friend, he tells him he'll take his secret literally to the grave. He then tells him to just leave him there and save himself. The scene leaves the viewer to reconsider how black & white our liberal labels of "good" and "evil" really are in light of this very noble (if naive) gesture by an "evil" gang member with no supposed morals or loyalties.

Unfortunately for the Departed, it had no such scenes, and unfortunately for IA, I think this was really the only such scene. And this is something that Face/Off does extremely well. In this film, the cop (John Travolta) is by all external accounts a good man in that he's a highly decorated and hard-working cop who wants to bring down a wanted criminal (Nicholas Cage). But it is this very same single-minded focus that completly alienates him from not only all his staff, but his wife and child as well. The real artistic meat of this film comes in when the characters trade places. Travolta gets to know the criminals he's hated his whole life in a new light, he sees their camraderie, their loyalty to "him" and to each other. And in his enemy's abandoned girlfriend and child (whom he previously intimdated and threatened) he sees his own family that he's neglected and he begins to empathize with her.

Meanwhile, Cage's character, despite being the "bad" guy is the one who ironically, or not (and that's the point!), manages to patch things up at the office, re-connect with Travolta's daughter and re-invigorate his marriage. Not only that, but there's even the fantastic scene when he's forced to goto the cemetary with Travolta's wife to visit the grave of their son whom HE murdered. Cage (as Travolta's character) is forced to finally confront the atrocity he committed. Geez, what a great movie! What a combination of pop and art! What vintage John Woo action ! How did I ever forget about this movie? Thank goodness for film journals!

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Blogger jt said...

That's pretty disappointing. I had high hopes for this film given the director and cast attached to it. I wonder what possessed them to throw in to so many additional elements to a film that was already extremely complicated?

October 19, 2006  
Blogger elaine s said...

You must talk to tania about your analyst. She spend a good 30 minutes ranting about the film. I thought it was "okay" but worse than IA. But then I rewatched IA two days after Teh Departed, and appreciated certain elements of The Departed (the backstory of the main characters in the beginning of the movie andleo's character). I don't like the fact that they removed the stereo/speaker store scene, the music sucked, i hate the slapped together ending..i didn't see any moral dilemmas for matt damon, and as you pointed out, i didn't care that mr. sheen got killed. Oh yeah, and i didn't feel bad about the mob friend dying (whereas in IA, you feel sorry for the fat kid who doesn't rat out on Tony for going to get a massage). What's up with Anthony Anderson at the end? was that necessary to even have him in the movie??????

October 24, 2006  
Blogger Jon said...

Oh I definitely agree with you on the "fat kid" thing. Crap. I meant to put that in my little review as well, but I guess there were just too many disappointing things about The Departed, I couldn't remember them all, ha ha. I think I'll stick it back in now. Yes! Let's hear it for the internet and unlimited editing abilities!

October 24, 2006  

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