It is about two guys who are each undercover agents. Leonardo Dicaprio plays the cop working deep undercover for a gangster while feeding information back to the cops. Matt Damon plays the other cop who is supposed to be investigating that same gangster, while feeding information back to that same gangster.
They're doubles. Get it? That's about as subtle as the movie gets.
This film is being hailed by a lot of people as a dazzling return to form for Scorsese. What it really feels like to me is a return to straightforward storytelling. The film is leaner than Scorsese's last few films; there are fewer stylistic flourishes, that feeling that he is straining really really really hard to be as 'cinematic' as he can be. There's nothing in THE DEPARTED to match the big tracking shot through the bowels of the Copa in GOODFELLAS or the dazzling fight scenes in RAGING BULL or the games with color in THE AGE OF INNOCENCE and THE AVIATOR, etc. The characters and story are the stars this time out.
And this time I was actually moved to give a damn about them. Mr. Damon and Mr. Dicaprio do very good work, each coming apart at the seams most convincingly under the pressures of their respective situations. Dicaprio's work in THE DEPARTED shows all the tension and danger that his performance in GANGS so desperately lacked, and the darkness behind Damon's trillion-dollar smile has never been used to better effect.
So what's not to like? The fact that the film starts to feel rather by the numbers. There is a MILLER'S CROSSING factor, by which I mean that eventually it just becomes clear that everybody is double-crossing everybody else, and triple-crossing everybody else, and nobody can be trusted, and nobody is quite what they seem, and that rabbits will be pulled from hats (a series of incriminating recordings appears just a little too conveniently) in order to ensure big climactic scenes.
In a nutshell, the feeling that my time could have been better spent watching a few good episodes of THE SOPRANOS just wouldn't go away, especially when Jack Nicholson was onscreen. His showboat performance occasionally pays off, but all too often it just brings the film to a halt. Look boys and girls, there's Jack with a severed hand in a baggie! Look boys and girls, see how he's waving it around to get some Tarantino-style laughs!! And don't forget the big rat impression at Oscar time, y'all.
So the big question now: is THE DEPARTED sufficiently devoid of interest and content to snag Scorsese that long-deferred Oscar? I don't see how they can deny it to him this time. I'm glad that THE DEPARTED doesn't sink under the weight of Scorsese's 'cinematic genius' the way that GANGS OF NEW YORK and THE AVIATOR did, and that it is leaner and meaner and ultimately just plain better than either of his most recent pieces of Oscar bait. But all the lean mean just plain betterness of this film can't disguise the fact that it has absolutely nothing interesting to say.
And that final shot. I mean really. Just how stupid does Scorsese think I am?