“I love the idea of changing my look. I think one owes it to the audience, to go out there and give them something different each time, so as not to bore them to death. And I always felt that if you’re not trying something different each time out of the gate, you’re being safe, and you don’t ever want to find that place of safety.” —Johnny Depp, in Interview Magazine
Try and think back to the last time Johnny Depp was really and truly good in a movie. Not fun, or weird, or doing “a thing” — but good. You’ve gotta go back 10 years to Finding Neverland, and even that’s a little questionable. And if you want to get to great, you’re reaching back to 1997 and Donnie Brasco.
Depp’s resume is an odd one. There are three phases: Before Edward Scissorhands, which was occupied with him becoming a TV star on 21 Jump Street and then trying to shed the teen-dream label that came with it. There’s Pre-Pirates of the Caribbean, where he did both his best work (Ed Wood, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, From Hell, the aforementioned Donnie Brasco) and his worst (The Ninth Gate, The Astronaut’s Wife, Nick of Time). And there’s Now You See Me, Not You Don’t, where he began doing whatever tickled his fancy (Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Rango, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, The Rum Diary, Tusk).
He has become increasingly enamored with the artifice of theatricality, with hiding himself so that only the character is visible – nothing of himself. Occasionally, that artifice yields actual art: His Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl — and in that film only — is a deft work of cinematic larceny. His woozy, swoozy pirate steals the film right from under the “stars” Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley (herself, the star of the entire trilogy) and that heist is much of the reason that first Pirates film crackles with energy.
The Pirates series — along with Alice in Wonderland, which grossed over a billion dollars, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which came close — turned Depp into an unquestioned movie star and since, he’s tucked himself away. Why be a human being when people, voting with their box office dollars, clearly prefer you as an otherworldly creation…and when that’s what you like anyway.
“And I’ve always enjoyed hiding behind these characters. It’s a strange thing, you’re more comfortable as a character than you are in life.” —Depp, again in Interview Magazine
And that’s fair. Not everyone needs to be an extrovert and for someone like Johnny Depp, who has been famous — intensely famous — for the majority of his life, maybe he doesn’t want to put himself out there anymore. And the desire to give an audience something they’ve never seen before is a laudable one.
But what are we supposed to do, those of us who go to the movies looking for characters that betray the realities of humanity? What are we supposed to do about Johnny Depp, whose desire to give us something new has, instead, resulted in a parade of the mediocre?
Mortedcai, which opens this weekend, finds Depp once again applying shit to his face — this time, a ridiculous moustache, which is also the focal point of the marketing campaign. (And, really, how better to sell the charms of Gwyneth Paltrow or Olivia Munn than by making them wear plunging dresses and waxy ‘staches?) He’s playing a half-assed detective with an exotic accent who barely solves crimes while being charming. As much as Depp claims to want to give the audience something new, Mortdecai just feels like warmed over Clouseau — itself a creation of an actor, Peter Sellers, looking to both stretch and subsume himself.
Towards the end of Marlon Brando’s life, he worked with Depp (in Don Juan DeMarco and, later, The Brave) and I think the two found common ground in their career trajectories. They both started as matinee idols, both struggled against that image and fought to redefine themselves, they both got paid obscenely well to do what must’ve appeared to be genre piffle (Pirates for Depp. Superman: The Movie for Brando) and both retreated into the makeup masquerade (Brando’s final film role was as the bizarrely affected titular geneticist in The Island of Dr. Moreau).
Listen, Johnny Depp is a grown millionaire who can do whatever he damned well pleases. But it’s also within our right, as the audience, to want a guy to stop wasting his gifts, stop running, and be a great actor again.
Marc Bernardin is the Deputy Editor of Playboy.com. The less said about Transcendence the better.