Thursday, November 16, 2006


THE DEPARTED sounded like a dream collaboration, Scorcese meets Nicholson. But instead it was a disaster, due to Jack's manic bid for screen presence. It's like Bush Jr's botched attempt to outdo his father with the Iraq debacle. In Jack's case it's to outdo "daddy" Brando in MISSOURRI BREAKS.

That flick was Brando's last as a leading man. Nicholson was the new Brando confronting the master with the edge of youth and a more dominant popularity at the time. But Brando not only blew him and everyone else off the screen, he did it with typical Brando ingenuity. Almost every scene that he's in, he not only dominates with the charisma of his screen presence but with the uniqueness of his choices, including dressing in drag—but unlike any drag we'd seen before as he disappears under the sun bonnet and neck-to-feet drab dress of an old prairie pioneer lady—or perching on the saddle of his horse like he's squatting over a Japanese hole-in-the-floor toilet. Jack's attempts at naturalism seemed pretty bland next to Brando's originality, or like an attempt to salvage the movie in the face of Brando's scenery chewing, depending on your perspective.

Now Jack gets his revenge in THE DEPARTED, which offered him the chance to pull on DiCaprio what Brando pulled on him at similar stages in their careers. And like Bush, he's gonna beat daddy at his own game. But also like Bush, he fails.

According to insiders on the set, Nicholson disrupted the flow of the movie and Scorcese's plans for it by rewriting his lines and scenes as well as trying to rewrite the lines of DiCaprio's character and others to give him, Jack, more screen time and scenery to chew. And it shows, the inconsistencies, the dropped plot points, as the screenwriting-class graduates call them, etc.

Brando may have improvised or rewritten some of his lines and scenes in THE MISSOURRI BREAKS for all I know, but the scenery chomping he does in that film is always consistent with his character's role and motives in the plot and even extending it as a comment on the times (1976) (or the future in the perspective of the flick) and the role of clandestine assassins working for the powers that be (CIA et. al.), while Nicholson's rewriting not only fucks up the narrative of the plot but also blows the point of his character's role in the plot and the real life it is based on, the Irish kingpin of Southie gangsterism, Whitey Bolger, who too was an FBI informant as well as brutal murderer.

Nicholson chooses to do a halfass homage to Brando as the shuffling aging don, mixed with the madman from THE SHINING—"Here's Whitey!" and misses the opportunity to explore another kind of gangster the movies have yet to get right (at least since Cagney), the Irish kind. Picture Richard Harris, with a twinkle in his eye, charming his minions and neighbors alike with his Irish (cum England) charm while carrying out the ruthless cruelty Bolger was famous for. Because Bolger was not just feared, he was lionised, based on clan pride and Irish pol charm, something Nicholson could have pulled off in his younger years, maybe. But he seemed to care less about the character he was playing and more about pulling on his younger castmates what Brando pulled on him in MISSOUURRI BREAKS, but Jack, I've seen Brando, you ain't no Brando.

I know I know, he's everybody's stoned sardonic Boomer's rock'n'roll doper hipster hero actor from the restaurant scene in FIVE EASY PIECES through THE SHINING's Johnny Carson-intro-satire to the aging convert to romanticism of that movie with Diane Keaton. But that still ain't no Brando baby. Even when he blew up to beyond late Orson Welles dimensions, Brando could underplay, get subtle, with the most incidental details in a scene. And he always risked all on the character, even when he seemed to phone some of the last few in. Nicholson suppresses the character under what has become his usual satanic majesty mannerisms.

All that said, there's some great moviemaking and acting going on in THE DEPARTED, despite Nicholson's conscious or not attempt to undermine it. Mark Wahlburg and Alec Baldwin come closest to what those kind of hardheaded Micks are really like from my family, clan and neighborhood experience, doing what they always do, some kick ass acting. DeCaprio makes up for being miscast in GANGS OF NEW YORK as an oldtime Mick, and in THE AVIATOR, where he tried hard and almost made it with some great moments but was just too boyish for any man of that time and place let alone a powerful loner megalomaniac like Hughes. But in THE DEPARTED, representing the credited screenwriter's background, I'd guess, as a Mick with one foot in the neighborhood and the other in preppie-ville, he almost makes the movie work, along with Matt Damon who does his usual competent job. Poor Martin Sheen looks lost in his role of surrogate daddy.

And how did the actress who plays the love/sex interest get profiled in The New York Times Sunday Magazine as our greatest screen actress since Meryl Streep (but come to think of it, Streep was overhyped as the great serious artiste of screenacting too, sometimes missing and sometimes hitting the mark she and her character were aiming for).

Worth seeing for the debacle of Nicholson's ham-ness (would a popular local Irish "godfather" really dis a nun and priests in a public venue, and do it with childish put downs? Yeah, I doubt it too, in fact I double doubt it.) and flashes of Scorcese's usual brilliance, as well as a new found campiness, as in the final shot, so hyper obvious a metaphor you wonder if it was meant to make up for all the murky, vague, confusing, and dropped "plot points" and gratuitous cliche montages (vide the one with the black chick and the cocaine!).


-K- said...

Reading this makes me sorry that Brando's gone.

At least Turner's playing "On The Waterfront" nest week (Monday?).

Is there a more fully realized movie in existence? Not just for Brando but for the story, the music, the theme, even Karl Malden's little sermon - all of it, great.

AlamedaTom said...

Lal's probably right here, but I must pause before I leap on his band wagon. Once we see a great actor, (and Jack is a great actor), play many parts, it is impossible to get that smell off your hands. So, I would love to have a "virgin brain" for movies like The Departed. Maybe the role really was supposed to be "Jack Over the Top" and a virgin brain seeing Jack for the first time would walk out saying: "That Nicholson guy was awesome in that part. I can't imagine anyone else playing it." Who knows.

Me? I dug the movie immensely, especially Leonardo, who grew up before my very eyes.

Anonymous said...

welcome to the blogoshere, dude,

i also, disliked scorsese's "departed". in fact, i hated it & wanted every character to be killed mercilessly - until they actually were, which made the whole thing really pointless. i hated the story-telling style, which might have been good for scorsese's a/d/d brain, but was too fast and condescending for mine...

what an irony it'd be for scorsese to win an oscar for this purple-prosed turkey!

write on,


Anonymous said...

marlon brando has nothing to do with this film....who gives a shit if he was a better actor than nicholson...with that way of thinking you can put down the accomplishments of anybody who isnt the best ever at what they do...jack nicholson is a great actor who played his role very well...the whole point was for him to be over the top...he was supposed to be a fuckin maniac!

Lally said...

Actually he wasn't. The character was based on Whitey Bolger, who was a murderer but not a wild man maniac ala Jack in THE SHINING and elsewhere. I never said Nicholson wasn't a good actor, he has done some incredible performances (CARNAL KNOWLEDGE and THE LAST DETAIL are two that come to mind) and the refernece to Brando and MISSUORRI BREAKS was explicit because I believe Nicholson was trying to do to DiCaprio what Brando did to Nicholson in that movie. The people I knew on the set of THE DEPARTED, as well as others who have worked with most of the main actors and the director, have all told me that Nicholson ripped the script he was given apart and insisted on rewriting not only his own lines and the scenes he was in, but others as well. Scorcese had a hard time managing him because Nicholson loves the creative combat of movie making, especially the perogatives of stardom, so he changed what was intended to be a coldblooded calculating manipulator-of-both-sides-to-his-character's-advantage, to an over the top wild haired screaming maniac that no Irish mob would be ruled by for more than thirty seconds. Sorry if that upset you anonymous, but that's what my experience in movies as well as with the Irish I come from leads me to believe. And as I said, there were some good things about the flic, like DiCaprio, who as far as I'm concerned did one of the best jobs he's ever done and was more appropriately cast than he often is. But I've had enough of the Jack show. Alec Baldwin would have been better in the Nicholson role by a mile.