Friday, October 27, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW: The Departed - Take 2, The Bostonian Response

All of you who read this know that I’m from Boston. Seeing as every other contributor to this site is either living in New York and/or is a Yankee fan, I feel it is my duty to be the voice of my people in matters concerning popular culture and sports. The cities of Boston and New York have always maintained a prickly relationship. Die-hard residents of both cities believe that they live in the best place on earth, and each have good reasons. Boston is one of the world’s great centers for education, history, sports, and is probably the most European-feeling city in the USA. It is also escapable – in two hours you could be in Maine, Cape Cod, or the Berkshires. New York is… well… New York is New York – there’s no place like it. It has everything you could ask for (except maybe clean streets and fresh air) and more of it than you could possibly digest in a lifetime. Its hugeness and density is awesome and overwhelming.

To the people of Boston (especially Red Sox fans), New York is like that big loud kid down the block who has everything – more money, a bigger house, more toys – and will take every opportunity to remind you of it in as obnoxious a manner as possible. You kind of hate that kid, but he still throws the best parties. Bostonians, in comparison, fancy themselves to be smart kids up the street, with good grades, a smaller but more tasteful house, and yet still tough enough to kick your ass in a street fight – especially on St. Paddy’s Day. To put the Bostonian attitude simply – New York is Quantity, Boston is Quality. The people most obsessed with these attitudes and rivalries are usually the ones who have never left their home cities. It’s all kind of stupid and pointless, but it can be fun to watch.

Anyway, I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with both cities. Boston is my home. With the possible exception of late February and March, it is beautiful in every season. You can walk almost everywhere. There are distinctive neighborhoods, gorgeous parks, fascinating architecture and interesting people all over the place. The sports fans are rabid, and Fenway Park is just awesome. After living in North Carolina and California, I actually appreciate the gruff, but honest attitude of Bostonians. Affection and respect must be earned! Now for the things I hate – that the T stops running at 1:30, that restaurants close even earlier, that moviemaking is considered something frivolous and stupid unless it’s a PBS documentary, that people who live on Beacon Hill live less than 5 miles from horrific poverty and violence in Roxbury and will never go down there to help out, the self-segregation of ethnic groups, and the hypocrisy of a city that prides itself on its liberal politics but can be so casually racist.

I have spent less time in New York, but there’s lots to love. Manhattan is just amazing. There’s a neighborhood for everyone. There are people and food from every corner of the globe. The excitement never stops, and the subway will take you anywhere. Central Park is fantastic. Show business and filmmaking are actually supported there. I love those New York moments when somebody does something bizarre on the street that would get you locked up in any other city, but New Yorkers casually pass by without a glance – they’ve seen it all. But at the same time, there’s just so much of everything that New York gets exhausting. It takes some serious time and effort to get out of the city and see some nature. And if you’re driving North, Co-op City is one of the most depressing sites your eyes will ever behold.

So, what does this all have to do with “The Departed?” Well, Boston has not been well served by the movies. It kind of sucks that anyone who makes a movie about Boston has to center its plot around one or more of the following – the Irish mob in Southie, the Kennedys, the Red Sox, and Harvard University. Sure, all of those have plenty of dramatic material to be mined, but there’s a lot more to Boston than those four subjects. 95% of the time, actors fuck up our accents and just don’t have the right vocabulary and body language. I was excited, apprehensively, by the prospect of Martin Scorsese pointing his lens at my home city. He’s made some of my absolute favorite movies, but how could a someone so fundamentally New York (and Italian-American New York, at that) nail a story about Irish-Americans in Boston, especially with someone as un-Bostonian, un-Irish and un-gangster as Leonardo DiCaprio in one of the lead roles? I knew that I could count on Matt Damon and Mark Wahlberg to lend local authenticity, and that Jack Nicholson could read a phone book and make it entertaining, but seriously… Leo? Was Denis Leary not available?

I needn’t have worried. “The Departed” is by far the best movie I have seen this year.
GI Jeff already gave you a plot summary in his review, so I’ll just muse on the Bostonishness of it all. First off, I have never seen a movie that nails the Boston vernacular as accurately as this one. Huge points to screenwriter William Monahan for taking a Chinese story and somehow making it more Boston than any film I’ve ever seen (with the possible exception of “Good Will Hunting”). As a Massachusetts native, Monahan knows how my people talk – the men, the women, the cops, the crooks, the academics, the kids from the North Shore, the “Irish” from Southie, the Irish from Ireland, the Italians from Providence, the Blacks, and the bigots. There are subtle differences and intricacies between each, and Monahan knows them all. He particularly nails how Bostonians insult one another. Every line that pops out of Mark Wahlberg’s mouth is gem of Hub-style indignation.

Monahan also displays knowledge of the evolving racial politics in Boston. In an early flashback, we see the first encounter between Jack Nicholson’s character and the little boy who will grow up to be Matt Damon having lunch in an Irish-owned drug store in Southie. Clearly the place is really run by Nicholson, to whom the proprietor of the store all but offers up his teenage daughter. Flash forward 20 or so years, and that drug store is owned by an Indian man being harassed by Italian gangsters from Providence. Southie is no longer the uniformly Irish-American ghetto it once was.

The big surprise for me was Leo. He’s finally grown up. When he played Howard Hughes, I could never shake the fact that he looked and sounded like a 16 year old pretending to be a grownup. When he played an Irish street punk in “Gangs of New York,” he struck me as too fragile, too youthful and too damned Californian to be believable (say what you will about Colin Farrell, but he would have nailed that role), especially next to Daniel Day-Lewis. No worries anymore. In this movie, he actually seems like a complicated and interesting adult. That he seems a bit more polished than the gangsters he’s surrounded by is perfect – his character is supposed to be a kid from the North Shore who was trying to escape his family’s criminal roots in Southie, only to be thrown back in with them. His accent is good, too. It is not pitch-perfect Southie, and it shouldn’t be. He sounds like someone who never really had much of a Boston accent, but slips into it when he’s surrounded by those who do – something I do all the time when I’m home.

The only actors who never nail the accent are Jack Nicholson and Vera Farmiga, but neither bothered me much. Jack’s overwhelming presence transcends accents. When he first sits down at the bar next to Leo, all I could think of was what must have been going on DiCaprio’s head. I am guessing it was something along the lines of “Holy Shit! Jack Fucking Nicholson just sat next to me at a bar in a Martin Scorsese movie in which I am playing the lead and I better not fuck this up!” Vera Farmiga is gorgeous and has a tricky role. She tries the accent in some scenes and drops it in others, but at least she never overdoes it.

Most of the movie was shot in New York, but you’d never know it from the way Scorsese and production designer Kristi Zea use their Boston locations. I have stood in several of the actual spots where scenes take place (Broadway, South Station, the Common, Fort Point Channel, Chinatown, Long Wharf and more), which added much to my enjoyment.

Anyway, it’s a terrific movie and will no doubt serve as a brilliant, but bloody post card of my home city. It is great to see Scorsese back in fighting form and anytime that awesomely talented New Yorker wants to make another flick in Boston, it’s fine by me.

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