With 'Departed,' Scorsese Breaks a Few Funny Bones

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 6, 2006

Martin Scorsese is back in fighting trim with "The Departed," a punchy crime drama that crackles and pops with the brio of the director's best-loved films. A richly textured portrait of yet another American ethnic subculture -- the Irish mob in South Boston -- "The Departed" may not drill quite as deeply as his most anthropological core samples ("Mean Streets," "Goodfellas"). Nor does it aspire to the historical gravitas of "Gangs of New York." But in its own way, this outing -- an adaptation of the well-regarded Hong Kong action thriller "Infernal Affairs" -- does something more important, precisely in what it doesn't do, which is take itself too seriously.

As they might say in Dorchester, it's a wicked kick in the pants.

Indeed, a deranged sense of humor weaves its way through "The Departed," from outrageous opening scenes introducing the sulfurous crime boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) to its eye-roller of a final shot. The playfulness marks a welcome diversion amid Scorsese's signature scenes of explosive violence and soaring arias of vulgarity and misanthropy, which otherwise would look like rote exercises from the director's playbook.

In large part, the humor in "The Departed" can be found in Nicholson himself, who delivers a crafty, utterly winning performance as a ruthless, amoral monster. Within the first two minutes of the film, where the camera follows Costello into a South Boston package store, Nicholson has succeeded in making the audience loathe his character; within the first three minutes, he's managed to make us love him. It's a neat trick that only an actor of Nicholson's skill could attempt, and only a star with his accrued capital of goodwill could pull off. Throughout "The Departed," Costello -- a leering, equal-opportunity offender who doesn't hesitate to profanely confront cops, fellow criminals or the local clergymen -- keeps viewers teeter-tottering between revulsion and vicarious delight.

"How's your mother?" Frank asks the young Bill Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio). "On her way out," Costigan replies. "We all are. Act accordingly." Bill, who grew up part time in the neighborhood where Costello has held sway for decades, has just been released from prison, and is looking to join the elder statesman's crew. Meanwhile, across town, another son of Southie, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) is investigating Costello as part of a mutual operation between the FBI and the Massachusetts State Police. Just who's investigating whom becomes increasingly murky as the cat turns into the mouse and turns into the cat again.

Scorsese and screenwriter William Monahan do a terrific job of keeping the proceedings legible enough to follow but just twisty enough to keep the audience wondering if they've missed something. Cut with characteristic precision and polish by Scorsese's longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, the picture drives hard through the by-now familiar Scorsese tropes: the bravura tracking shots, the ritualized male aggression, the frisson-inducing music cues. If the director's use of the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" in that opening scene suggests a filmmaker going back to the well once too often, he makes up for it later with a scene featuring Van Morrison's cover of "Comfortably Numb."

That music accompanies a sensuous love scene between DiCaprio and newcomer Vera Farmiga, playing a therapist who becomes entangled with both Costigan and Sullivan. Her role, upon reflection, isn't structurally important, but their scenes with her allow both actors to break out of the stranglehold of a movie that would otherwise be just plot-action-plot. This is DiCaprio's third and best movie with Scorsese, who seems to have finally managed to erase all the baby fat from the perennially young actor's persona. Even more of a revelation is Damon, who delivers a complicated, convincing and often surprisingly spontaneous performance as a politically ambitious cop. It doesn't hurt that South Boston and its tribal subtleties are things Damon knows well; when Sullivan looks longingly out of his apartment at the Massachusetts Statehouse, it's impossible not to see a slightly harder-edged version of Will Hunting behind the gaze.

"The Departed" is owned by its troika of lead actors, all of whom take possession with the assurance and muscle that's required of them. But the film's novelty, its giddy exuberance, is to be found on the edges. Mark Wahlberg, as a feisty, obscenity-spewing detective, bites into his scenes with the gusto of a man enjoying a good lobster; Alec Baldwin, as one of his superiors, takes similar relish with a role that recalls Joe Pesci -- not the homicidal psychopath of "Goodfellas," but the fast-talking sharpie of "My Cousin Vinny." Together, the two provide the most explicit humor in a movie that, unlike any other Scorsese picture, isn't afraid to be seen going after laughs. (The best lines are unrepeatable in a family newspaper.)

Presumably, it's Monahan -- a Boston native and former editor at the satirical magazine Spy -- who can be thanked for the script's spot-on Southie vernacular, as well as its antic sense of fun. But Scorsese is to be commended for taking something of a risk at this point in his career. It's possible, throughout "The Departed," to see a 63-year-old director trying hard to prove his swaggering-young-man bona fides, whether in scenes designed to shock (Costello re-breaking someone's arm in a cast, then later distractedly removing a wedding ring from a severed hand while talking about John Lennon) or the film's final bloodbath, in which Scorsese looks like he's trying to out-Scorsese himself. But for the most part, "The Departed" represents both a fond look back on the roots of a great filmmaker's artistic life and a new expansiveness. As that final shot suggests, the man who once set out to make the audience wince now seems more inclined to leave us laughing.

The Departed (149 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for strong brutal violence, pervasive profanity, some strong sexual content and drug material.

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