Critic Pauline Kael said of Martin Scorcese’s Goodfellas that it was "about guys getting high on being a guy." That’s also true of Scorcese’s new film, The Departed , which moves from his films of Italian machismo to Irish, David Mamet-like, blunt and profane verbal collisions. If I were Irish, I don’t know whether I’d be offended or proud. While The Departed doesn’t quite match the energy of the earlier film – and what could? – it’s laced with disarming humor, especially in the first act, before the stakes go up.
The film is about a cop, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, who is deep undercover in the Boston mob – so deep that only two controllers know who he is. He is paralleled with a mobster, played by Matt Damon, who is a mole in the State Police. One tries to take down, while the other tries to protect, a crime boss played by Jack Nicholson. This is the basic setup of the Hong Kong original, Infernal Affairs – a movie with the black-and-white sensibility of a graphic novel. Scorcese preserves many of the fiendishly complex double binds from the first film; but he adds the shades of gray, and roots his film in ethnicity and place.
William Moynahan’s verbal script combines the cop and the mobster’s girlfriends into a single woman – the only woman in the film – a police shrink who must now choose between the two men. This is preposterous, but why not? She says at one point, "Sigmund Freud wrote that the Irish are the only people in the world impervious to psychoanalysis." The poor girl can’t see into either man, though they certainly have her number.
The chief joy of The Departed is its casting, which doesn’t just load the marquee with big names, it matches actor to role like hand to glove. DiCaprio has replaced DeNiro as Scocese’s lead of choice, and he has a method naturalism. Matt Damon, perfect for a liar, has John Cusak’s gift for sounding like the smartest guy in the room. As in The Talented Mr. Ripley and the Bourne films, he’s charming, but with something coiled and shifting behind the eyes. There are also four plum tough guy roles, filled by Ray Wintone, Maritn Sheen, Mark Wahlberg, and Alec Baldwin. Baldwin has been given the best lines – and he knows it – including a speech about marriage that will go down as a classic. He works harder now that he’s pudgy and can’t rely on looks alone.
While giving the characters room to breathe is highly pleasurable, this "B" material can’t quite support an "A" treatment. But what marvelous moments it contains. As Woody Allen did earlier this year with Match Point , Scorcese proves he can do more than work in a young man’s genre: he can do the kids one better.
The Departed is playing at Showplace West. Also of note: this Wednesday evening, The Game of Their Lives will be screened at Wittenberger Auditorium, followed by a Q&A with its writer/producer, Bloomington screenwriter Angelo Pizzo. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.