The Departed is Martin Scorsese's "comeback," the critics keep chanting, but had he gone anywhere? The Scorsesean aspects of The Aviator, plain to even the laziest eye, nevertheless escaped reviewers at large, so the director smacks them in the forehead with the opening image -- a luxuriant lateral pan with Jack Nicholson narrating in the shadows, "Gimme Shelter" blasting on the soundtrack. Nicholson is a wacky Boston mob boss named Costello, a "paradox" who quotes Joyce and laughs at the way the body he's just shot tumbles; King Leer savors his fall from grace tremendously, though the film's presiding sinner is Matt Damon's Sullivan, whose choirboy innocence is tempted since childhood by Costello's satanic charm yet graduates from his police academy with flying colors. An iris shot leads him to the city's top investigative unit, in the waiting room he briefly brushes past Costigan (Leonard DiCaprio), another academy trainee; their paths won't cross again in person till much later on, but the two characters will remain linked in the narrative's slashing symmetry of proliferating betrayals. Sullivan is a Costello minion working within the law, while Costigan is to be propped with criminal cred in order to infiltrate Costello's underworld set; the geometry has been borrowed from the acclaimed Infernal Affairs trilogy, but all its staccato brutality, familial links, and street honor only remind us of how much Hong Kong cinema has borrowed from Scorsese to begin with.
The three original films are crammed into 149 minutes, so Scorsese moves with bedeviled fury from one rubout and confrontation to the next, tracing dueling worlds braided by the cell phone tones of the twin "rats" -- Costello and his main henchman (Ray Winstone) are echoed on the other side by the cop team of Martin Sheen (avuncular paternal figure) and Mark Wahlberg (razzing hard-ass), while a psychiatrist (Vera Farmiga) unknowingly blurs the lines by soothing and bedding down the two infiltrators. Costello pontificates to Costigan over breakfast by using a severed hand as prop, but do the authorities even trust their own men? "Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe go fuck yourself." All of this is red meat to Scorsese, who can't resist making a pugnacious Fourth of July event out of every scene: the craning, dollying, tracking camera might try to exorcise the pot-boiling tensions via constant movement, but the director's furies cannot, will not be pacified. Costello's red-drenched night at the opera follows into the merest view to a coke-fueled orgy, with The Band's version of "Comfortably Numb" completing the rhapsodic impressionism; the shift from Italo-American New York City to Irish Boston is a smooth one for the Catholic anguish remains in place, as a TV glimpse of The Informer (Victor McLaglen contorted in chiaroscuro penitence) segues into a Virgin Mary mosaic, which is promptly smashed over the head of a thug.
What passion! When Costello first tests Costigan's reliability by smashing his cast-encased arm on a pool table, it hits the senses like Travis Bickle's bullets or Jake LaMotta's punches -- violence is abused in virtually every movie nowadays, yet see any Scorsese work and be reminded of how rarely it's made to sting. Allusions to the Hong Kong original are kept in check (the abrupt underground meeting with the triad leader, Michael Ballhaus' photographic tribute to Chris Doyle in one rain-slicked night passage), just as the director acknowledges previous instances of cultural cross-influencing by looking back at Reservoir Dogs, another Asian-tinged duel of honor. The intensity culminates in the crucifixion tableau that the movie has been steadily building to, only for chirpy cellular chimes to enter the solemn delirium of the image -- you must understand farce before you can understand tragedy, and Scorsese understands both. Using the absurdity of wisps such as DiCaprio and Damon playacting at being badasses to heighten their characters' life-and-death performativity? Casting as a feminine sanctuary an actress forever vividly falling to pieces? Allowing Nicholson -- sardonic, expansive, lordly in his dishevelment -- to establish his own Rigoletto rhythm within the rapid-fire montage? All gags, leading exuberantly up to a withering punchline seen out the window. The Departed is a very funny, very tragic film, and grand enough to once again get snubbed by Academy voters.
The inexorable progression of life has long become the true subject of the Up Series, Michael Apted's ongoing work-in-progress that every seven years checks in on a dozen people randomly picked in their childhood back in 1964 as "a glimpse of Britain's future." 49 Up finds the subjects about to enter their fifth decade, with footage from the previous movies mixed with new interviews to give the work a fuller sense of time passed, or life lived. Updates are listed (Nick is divorced and remarried, Lynn still has medical problems, Tony the cabbie now sports a Spanish vacation home), but seeing these people again isn't so much catching up with old friends as being rudely reminded of one's own vulnerability to the forward-pushing sprawl of time. That the series remains immensely resonant and moving despite the scrupulous yet limiting reticence of Apted's handling (who passes the time in between installments with Hollywood hackwork like The World Is Not Enough) attests to the ways a great idea for a project can be expanded past any gimmickry when life enters the equation. As they amble through middle-age, these grown kids are able to come to terms with the contours of their existences, maybe understand the series' purpose more lucidly, and, in Neil's case, even grope toward serenity. I myself prefer the balance between youthful dream and difficult reality of 28 Up, but that's just further proof of how Apted's document invites personal reflection. Essential viewing, especially for the complacent teens crowding The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning or Employee of the Month.
Then again, even Dane Cook's stubble might be preferable to the terminal whimsy of The Science of Sleep, which is apparently aimed at an audience of elves. Gael García Bernal hops around a world of cellophane and cotton-candy, regaling cardboard cameras with the recipe for reveries -- "Dreams and emotions are overwhelming," though Michel Gondry's film, which scampers from the Pee Wee's Playhouse within Bernal's noggin to the no less pixieish outside world, is nauseatingly fey. Bernal is an artiste-inventor stuck with a boring job and a Modiglianesque gamine for a neighbor (Charlotte Gainsbourg), so the director clutters the screen with mock-childlike illusionism, from a raggedy-doll pony galloping across rooms to a metropolis summarily built out of toy pieces, everything manic and static at the same time. People who heralded the greatness of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind will have a fresh masterpiece to exalt, but, with or without fellow faux-naïf Charlie Kaufman doing the writing, Gondry's cosmos is still one of toxic cuteness cloaked as ethereal emotionalism. A nightmare.
Reviewed October 12, 2006.