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Friday, October 20, 2006

Departed, or what I should have done when Jack Nicholson started waving his hands around like Godfather III-era Pacino

Alice tells me that The Believer has a no snarkiness rule. I admire that, but I don't know where else to turn but to snarkiness to describe why I hated The Departed.

If you were a great director who had success with crime movies, and you've run out of ideas, which of these would you include in your new movie?

A) Jack Nicholson at his most vamping
B) at least three scenes that end with one cop punching another
C) shootouts where bullets conveniently only hit minor characters
D) stock sexpot sidekick to the big boss
E) zany Chinese gangsters
F) resolve complicated plot situations by just killing off antagonists
G) large plot elements hinging on suspect events (somehow calling back an unlisted number, writing your return address on a piece of mail you send to your enemy, leaving secret possessions lying around, openly discussing organized crime on cell phones)

Leonardo DiCaprio starts out the movie well-cast as a brooding dork who isn't tough enough to be a cop. He got 1400 on his SATs! But he reveals he can keep his hand completely steady while inside he's screaming.

Soon he's in the middle of some serious trouble, a perfect setup to show these two aspects of his character in conflict. Can he suppress his book smarts convincingly? What will happen to him if, say, he is forced to kill someone? What if he has to stay stoic while someone he knows is hurt? What if he has to give up love to stay dedicated to his task? What if he has to kill to protect his identity? What if he must walk into a situation where the police will want to shoot him, not knowing who he is--and he can't reveal the truth?

Luckily for him, none of these things ever happen, and he is able to easily sidestep any pesky incidents that might introduce dramatic tension. We are told that he's cracking up, but we're shown few of the actual madness-inducing incidents, though he mentions he's been undercover for a year. (I got the feeling that the audience at my screening chose to ignore Scorcese's explicit time frame and stick to the much briefer one implied by his direction.)

Matt Damon's acting is great, but his character is mishandled by Scorcese and writer William Monahan. At the start of the film, his is a great character. He is legitimately dedicated and proud to do his job, but at the same time he must undermine his own work. Will this contradiction grow slowly, until he can't deny that he must make a choice? How does he reconcile his opposing allegiances? Will his huge ambition prove stronger than he expects? Will he reveal himself unintentionally through things he tells his therapist friend?

No, it turns out, he has no qualms at all, and only faces the contradiction at all thanks to some questionable deus ex machina. It turns out that the suggestion of ambition we get at the beginning of the film is a fluke; the closing shot of the film awkwardly focuses on a dramatic element that the film has completely forgotten. And it turns out the therapist character, for all the exposition of her job function and its dramatic promise, could have just as easily been an MD or lawyer.

The worst part of Jack Nicholson's performance is that at the beginning of the movie he is trying to be a real person, which makes it all the more disappointing later when he gets lazy and starts turning on the famous pizazz. The film reminded me of Heat and Road to Perdition, which also started strongly as realistic crime dramas but turned into hokey star vehicles.

The Departed is a remake of the Hong Kong movie Infernal Affairs, and its mishandling feels like that of a Hong Kong movie: strong setup, missed dramatic opportunities, characters left static and indistinct, a disappointing climax that does not address the film's big questions.

Boston writer William Monahan certainly has an ear for dialect, though, and sounds like a cool guy. Imdb quotes him saying:
I wanted to be an old-fashioned man of letters, so I essentially prepared myself very carefully through my 20s for a job that doesn't exist anymore; You may be able to find a man of letters in Syria or the Horn of Africa, but you could work Manhattan or London with dogs for a year and never find one. Anthony Burgess is dead, Vidal is the last lion, and at any rate belles-lettres aren't where they were left. Anyway, I'm making movies now. Just before all this happened, I thought, 'Out of everything you can do or think you can do, pick one thing and be it.' What I picked was to be the screenwriter."

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Anonymous Katy on Mon Oct 23, 10:00:00 AM:
There was an interesting article in the Boston Globe a few weeks ago about William Monahan. I recommend it.

I haven't been to see The Departed yet because I'm worried about all the violence. If I'm going to spend most of the movie hiding under my jacket, it's probably not worth $10. But I'm on the fence--I'm really curious and might just give in and go see the movie.