Martin Scorsese is a great filmmaker who rarely makes great films. The Departed, the director’s return to the gangster genre, is another not-great one, but it is a raucous, bloody romp with more juice than any Scorsese movie since 1990’s Goodfellas. After two underwhelming historical pictures, the movie’s crackling vigor suggests that the director needs to feed on the energy of somebody’s contemporary mean streets, even if they’re not those of his own New York.
Although it’s not torn from nonfiction pages in the style of Gangs of New York or The Aviator, The Departed does tap two streams of history. The first is Boston’s bitter racial legacy, evoked by an opening montage of news footage of the city’s violent mid-’70s school integration. This prelude, however, turns out simply to set up the snarling worldview of the film’s resident demon and unsurpassable star, South Boston Irish-mob boss Frank Costello, embodied by a Jack Nicholson who’s holding nothing back. (Not that Scorsese is known for reining in his outsize charismatic villains, as Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Daniel Day-Lewis can attest.) Dismissing the politics of victimhood, Costello explains that if you want something, “you have to take it!” With this, the rancor between Irish and African-American Bostonians disappears from the movie, save for a few of the hundreds of macho taunts delivered by Costello & Co. and their enemies in the Massachusetts State Police. (Anthony Anderson has a small part, but overall the movie is just more evidence that Scorsese’s diversity program is no more robust than Woody Allen’s.)
The other backstory is that of the script itself, adapted by William Monahan from Hong Kong directors Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s 2002 movie, Infernal Affairs. (Miramax acquired that film for U.S. distribution but allowed it only a few bookings before dumping it to DVD.) The Departed follows its predecessor’s plot closely, while excising—or simply trampling—Confucian and Buddhist themes of filial duty and spiritual corruption. Costello grooms a local kid from an early age to become a trooper who’ll be his mole within the state cops. Meanwhile, another boy with Southie roots grows up to be a mob infiltrator, with a life story carefully scripted to appeal to the mob boss. Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon in his grinningly duplicitous, Talented Mr. Ripley mode) becomes a policeman at the same time that Billy Costigan (a constricted, believably confused Leonardo DiCaprio) is recruited by Costello, and it’s inevitable that each will ultimately be charged with exposing the other.
Faithful as it is, The Departed is not a shot-for-shot remake. It adds a too-tidy epilogue that the original lacks, and—in a conceptual coup worthy of a Hong Kong scriptwriter—merges Colin and Billy’s girlfriends into a single character, a police psychiatrist (Vera Farmiga) who clearly has trouble setting boundaries. It also amplifies some of the supporting characters, giving—or allowing Nicholson to take—a bigger part as the boss and allotting a small but pungent role to genuine Bostonian Mark Wahlberg, whose foul-mouthed Sgt. Dignam steals every scene he’s in. Scorsese salutes Hong Kong by staging one scene in a Chinatown that’s far more teemingly atmospheric than Boston’s real one, and the script briefly introduces some Chinese bad guys intent on buying weapons-grade microchips purloined from a Route 128 technology firm. But such cross-cultural homages are nothing more than, say, Quentin Tarantino might do in homage to his favorite Asian action flicks.
As has been widely noted since this remake was announced, Scorsese is closing a circle by turning to Hong Kong: He was a major influence on such HK directors as John Woo and Johnnie To, as well as on Lau and Mak. Yet Jean-Pierre Melville was equally important to the evolution of the HK new-wave gangster picture, and his stoic thugs are more in sync with the Chinese style than are Scorsese’s mouthier ones. This is the most significant way in which The Departed departs from Infernal Affairs: Save for the brooding Costigan, the major male characters are all gun-toting insult comics. Scorsese and his longtime collaborators—notably cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and editor Thelma Schoonmaker—make the images swoop and pop, while the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, primal-scream-era John Lennon, and local-color Dropkick Murphys fuel the action. Yet there’s more testosterone in the outrageous dialogue than in the movie’s most vivid pileups of guns, edits, and riffs.
Comparing The Departed with its antecedent is not just a film buff’s parlor game, for Scorsese has taken more than the plot from Infernal Affairs. He’s also absorbed its flash, drive, and gleeful superficiality. This is all to the good, since the projects that apparently matter deeply to the director, from Kundun to Gangs of New York, usually end up inert or worse. Working from an unabashed genre picture has freed Scorsese from significance, allowing him to recapture the urgency and bravado of his early work. If The Departed brims with hostility, betrayal, and hopelessness, it delivers its bad news about the human condition with a winning grin.
Some may wince at The Departed’s parade of emasculating insults, which include lots of “pussy,” “faggot,” and “homo.” But those epithets won’t break the bones of the characters in Shortbus, who are sheltered by living in the “queer” utopia known as New York City. Writer-director John Cameron Mitchell’s full-frontal follow-up to Hedwig and the Angry Inch imagines a world in which sex is not only open and free but also creative, defining, and all-important. Mitchell may think this is liberating, but it actually seems trivializing, as well as kind of a bore.
The script, partially based on the actors’ improvisations, intertwines three stories: Two gay men whose bond is weakening, and who are therefore seeking a third player for variety; a sexually uninhibited couples’ therapist who can’t achieve orgasm; and—yes, really—a despondent dominatrix. Despite the mixed cast, most of the film’s interest is invested in the gay men. The female characters are unpersuasive, and the emphasis on the redemptive powers of anal sex ultimately excludes large segments of the polymorphously perverse community Mitchell is supposedly celebrating.
Trying to save their live-in union, depressed James (Paul Dawson) and upbeat Jamie (PJ DeBoy) consult Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee), the therapist who can’t come—despite the acrobatic coitus with husband Rob (Raphael Barker) shown in the film’s opening three-orgasm salute. After they discuss “opening up” their relationship, the guys invite Sofia to Shortbus, a subcultural cabaret, salon, and clubhouse where one room is reserved for a full-time orgy. Sophia finds herself in a room with a group of women, most of them lesbians, that includes dominatrix Severin (Lindsay Beamish), presumably named after the star of the Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs.” Also present are a thinly veiled parody of Ed Koch, who apologizes for the AIDS crisis, and Ceth (Jay Brannan), who’s just the erotic addition James and Jamie need. While the three experiment together, Sophia turns to battery-powered devices, and Severin whips Rob. Plus there’s a blackout, an attempted suicide, a benevolent voyeur, and a marching band.
Aside from the sex, which is for real, Mitchell doesn’t take the various soap-operatic developments very seriously. And yet he’s not especially witty. His is a passably hip gay version of frat-boy humor, culminating in a sing-along of “we all get it in the end.” (The movie might be easier to take if the music, which ranges from lounge standards to Animal Collective’s kiddie-pop, weren’t so lame.) Mitchell may be laughing with, rather than at, his characters, but in practical terms that doesn’t make much difference.
The movie is amiable enough, and it’s a break from Hollywood’s alternatively prudish or hysterical view of eros. What makes Shortbus actively irksome is the suggestion that its genuine erections and unsimulated ejaculations constitute some sort of revolution. Indeed, Mitchell has described the film as “a small act of resistance against Bush and the America we live in,” a statement that goes a long way toward explaining why nobody cares about the New York avant-garde anymore. Sex is good, candor is fine, but the war in Iraq will continue regardless of how many vibrating eggs you buy. To think otherwise is to risk, well, vanishing up your own asshole.CP