There's a scene in the gangster thriller Black Mass that should sound bells of recognition for all fans of the genre. In it, legendary crime lord James "Whitey" Bulger (Johnny Depp) and some friends are enjoying a dinner prepared by one of Bulger's associates: FBI agent John Morris (David Harbour). Bulger compliments Morris on their steaks and asks what seasoning was used, to which the agent replies that it's a secret family recipe whose ingredients, upon further pressing, he genially reveals. That's when Bulger seems to snap.
His smile curls into a frown, his eyes go deader than usual, and he calmly inquires of Morris that if the agent is willing to share this "family secret" so quickly, what other secrets - perhaps secrets about Bulger - might he have shared? During the unbearably thick silence that follows, Morris and his tablemates appear nearly frozen with panic. Bulger, meanwhile, stares and stares, and we in the audience prepare for an inevitable, horrific burst of violence. And then ... Bulger laughs. A lot. Exclaiming "You should see your face!", he insists he was just busting Morris' balls. Very slowly, the others begin to smile, and then they, too, laugh. And as this sensationally tense sequence ends on a note of cautious cheer, it's impossible to ignore the suggestion of what we just witnessed: GoodFellas with Johnny Depp in the Joe Pesci role. All that was missing was the psychotic query "I'm funny how?!"
This isn't to imply that Depp's Bulger is in any way a runty, motormouthed sociopath à la Pesci's Tommy DeVito. Quite the opposite. Tall and lean in his mid-50s - a scene of him determinedly performing stomach crunches helps explain the fitness - this Bulger rarely raises his voice above a concentrated undertone, mostly because he doesn't have to; his ferocious gaze and notoriety as south Boston's reigning criminal already speak volumes. But like Pesci's Oscar-winning turn, Depp's Bulger is both frightening and hypnotically charismatic, and the "funny how" lies in how unpredictable he is regarding whether violent executions or just good-natured ball-bustings are in store. There were at least a half-dozen moments in Black Mass in which Depp, his sickly blue-gray contact lenses and pallid skin tones giving him an otherworldly creepiness, had me quietly giggling - partially in dread, but primarly in delight at the obvious relish Depp was taking in the role. There's such performance joy evident in his whispered threats and gravelly dialect and exquisitely held pauses that I, for one, felt like applauding Depp at pretty consistent intervals. Happily, by its finale, director Scott Cooper's movie has also proven itself worthy of an ovation.
Black Mass, which covers the decade and a half (beginning in 1975) that Bulger served, unwisely, as an FBI informant, has the benefit of a great story - and it takes a while to realize it's Bulger's story only peripherally. The larger tale being told concerns FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), who convinces his bosses that Bulger's involvement will help bring down the Italian mafia, and who seems barely concerned that this, in turn, will only promote Bulger's own Winter Hill Gang to higher and more dangerous levels of power. Connolly, it's gradually revealed, wants this childhood friend from "the old neighborhood" in power. He loves the fame and debaucherous perks that come from both his Bulger-assisted dismantling of the mafia and his entitled position among Bulger's inner circle, and, as a viewer, you start questioning whether Connolly may actually be the movie's more insidious villain. Edgerton's crafty performance is a marvel of vainglorious confidence masking pathetic ass-covering. Every time his superiors (among them those played by Harbour, Adam Scott, and Kevin Bacon) question Connolly's motives or the FBI's involvement with Bulger, the agent burrows into deeper, more vitriolic layers of deception and self-deception, and Black Mass ends up painting an unexpectedly vivid portrayal of corruption on both sides of the law.
As strong as the narrative is, though, the dialogue by screenwriters Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk rarely rises above serviceable, and there are times when the film swerves into Whitey's Greatest Hits (in all senses of the term "hits") territory, eschewing thematic complexity for more traditional gangster-thriller scenarios. (Depp's mere presence would bring to mind Donnie Brasco, but that 1997 release gets hat-tipped even when the star isn't around, and it should go without saying that there are additional echoes of Scorsese's entire thug-themed oeuvre - GoodFellas, but also Mean Streets, Casino, and especially The Departed.) But Black Mass' authors and director aren't out to re-invent the wheel here. Cooper ensures that the deliberate pace never turns funereal, and he and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi deliver simple yet unsettling compositions that stick in your mind: Bulger strangling a victim while the camera crawls toward the henchman sickened and saddened by the sight; the barely controlled terror in the face of Connolly's wife Marianne (Julianne Nicholson) as she endures a series of menacing compliments.
Nicholson hardly has anything to do in the movie. But she does spectacularly well with what she's given (particularly when Marianne chides her husband for his unhealthy Bulger fixation), and it's a trait shared by all - with the partial exception of Benedict Cumberbatch, who's sly enough as Bulger's state-senator brother Billy, but who also continues to suggest he may be the lone British actor incapable of a decent American accent. (Considering he's just as distracting-sounding here as he was playing an Oklahoman in August: Osage County, maybe Cumberbatch just needs to give up on regional American accents.) Bacon and Scott hit the right, welcome comedic notes as uncomprehending agents, and Corey Stoll, showing up late in the proceedings, plays a no-nonsense one with zeal; the scene in which his Fred Wyshak cuts through Connolly's BS and the latter finally gets slapped down has some of the charge of Scorsese's "Bond villain" scene aboard the Wolf of Wall Street yacht. Harbour's broken agent John Morris is pitiful and heartbreaking; Jesse Plemons is fierce and magnetic as one of Bulger's brooding cronies; as another, Rory Cochrane is alternately scary and deeply moving (and officially unrecognizable from his stoned-sweetheart days as Slater in Dazed & Confused).
Believe it or not, I can go on. Dakota Johnson, as the mother of Bulger's young son, has an emotionally devastating hospital scene in which she threatens to take their son off life-support - a suggestion that, for Bulger, is received not at all well. Juno Temple has only a few minutes as a chirpy teen prostitute, yet she's so animated, and connects so fully to both her role and to us, that you're saddened to see her go. And on that note, I don't know how Cooper convinced Peter Sarsgaard to show up for all of four scenes and five minutes as a coked-up lowlife whose narrative purpose is, admittedly, unclear. But it's to all of our good fortune that he did; Sarsgaard is so manically alive when being grilled by FBI agents, and so teasingly funny when not leaving a room Bulger's asked him to leave four times already, that the actor's presence is less a cameo than a gift. Black Mass' may be, to date, the film ensemble of the year, and it's led by a splendid Johnny Depp turn that brings to mind no one so much as Mae West. When he's good, he's very good, and when he's bad, he's better.
With age and time, there are things you just stop hoping for, and until recently, one of them, for me, was that Lily Tomlin would again be granted an emotionally expansive, fabulously funny starring role in a work that deserved her. I thought maybe it would come with the Netflix sitcom Grace & Frankie, yet while many people (including Emmy voters and my mother) appear to relish Tomlin's contributions, I could only make it through three episodes before refusing to watch her and Jane Fonda continue to trudge through infuriatingly weak, phony material. But saints be praised: Our long, long wait is finally over. In writer/director Paul Weitz's Grandma, Tomlin plays a septuagenarian named Elle Reid who, over one long day, travels with her granddaughter Sage (the lovely, touching Julia Garner) in search of funds to pay for the teen's abortion. Based on that setup, you might not expect hilarity to ensue. But hilarity does ensue, along with drama, insight, tenderness, and a feature-length reminder that 76-year-old Tomlin is, and always has been, like no one else on Earth.
A moderately acclaimed, financially strapped lesbian poet whose partner of 38 years recently passed away, Elle in her first scene ends her four-month relationship with a much younger girlfriend (the typically marvelous Judy Greer), and she's so cruelly, profanely sarcastic in her dispatching of the crying woman that you blanch - Tomlin and Weitz, clearly, aren't going for "adorable senior" here. There's no reason they should when "flesh-and-blood senior" is such a more interesting way to go. Not much happens in terms of plot. Weitz's road-trip comedy is basically a series of pit stops with Sage's loathsome boyfriend (a terrific Nat Wolff), several of Elle's acquaintances (including Orange Is the New Black's excellent Laverne Cox and, in a heartbreaking shock, the late, great Elizabeth Peña), Elle's ex-husband (a career-best Sam Elliott), and Sage's mom (Marcia Gay Harden, playing a cartoon with a pulse). Yet the film is filled with beautiful passages exploring intergenerational connection and the humorous lack thereof - when Elle brings up Betty Friedman's The Feminine Mystique, Sage references the X-Men - and it's wonderfully fresh and witty throughout. Even better, it's surprising. Weitz's narrative may coast along not-unpredictable lines, but his characters prove capable of growth, and don't reveal everything about themselves in their first minutes on-screen. That's particularly true of Tomlin's Elle, a glorious paint-by-number whose hues are gradually filled in to form a complete, gorgeous portrait of a politicized '70s feminist wondering, in her later years, just what her revolution led to. On a couple of occasions, as when Elle kicks the crap out of Sage's beau or gets punched by an eight-year-old girl, Weitz indulges in some unnecessary, unconvincing slapstick. But the majority of Grandma's 79 minutes are damn near perfect. As for Tomlin, whose magnificently multi-textured portrayal inspires cackles one moment and empathetic tears the next, she is perfect. And that's the truth. (Insert Bronx cheer.)