There are dozens of biographies on Johnny Depp and a surprising amount of them use the word “rebel” in the title. There’s the Passionate Rebel, the Modern Rebel and even Hollywood’s Best-Loved Rebel.
There can be no argument that Depp is a fearless actor, unafraid to tackle tough, challenging roles, but it’s hard to accept the rebel title these days. For 20 years, he wildly threw darts at the wall, making exciting movies with interesting directors.
With Tim Burton, he created the off-kilter Eds — Wood and Scissorhands. With John Waters, he produced Wade Walker, the greaser love interest in Cry-baby. And, with Lasse Hallström, he came up with Gilbert Grape, caregiver to his brother and morbidly obese mother.
Along the way, he was also Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the world’s most successful drug dealer in Blow, and the depraved poet at the dark heart of The Libertine.
Few actors could have pulled off Ed Wood and no one does debauched like Johnny, but the carefully cultivated hip outsider image was never truly accurate. Shrouded in a cloud of Gauloise smoke, he was one of Hollywood’s too-cool-for-school kids, emitting an outsider’s aura, while astutely playing the Hollywood game.
But any remaining traces of Depp’s bohemian status were wiped away with Captain Jack Sparrow’s colourful scarves in the tetralogy of Pirates of the Caribbean movies. They made him a superstar, and wealthy enough to buy Bahamian islands, but also ushered in the damaging wig and makeup era of his career.
The pale makeup of Dark Shadows, Alice in Wonderland’s crazy oversized hat, and the raven headdress of The Lone Ranger overshadowed Depp’s performances, obscuring his character work with props and flash.
This weekend, he hides behind a moustache in the comedy Mortdecai.
As the title character, he’s pompous, bumbling — imagine Inspector Clouseau with an English accent and an attitude — and on a worldwide hunt for a painting said to contain the code to a lost bank account.
Will people be attracted to Mortdecai? Hard to know. Depp’s showy performances have, by-and-large, garnered big box office but profitability, while important to the suits who green light projects like this, is exactly what’s killing Depp’s credibility as a serious actor.
He’s not in Nicolas Cage territory yet — there’s an actor whose Western Kabuki style of acting redefines idiosyncratic — but with Pirates of the Caribbean 5 coming soon, perhaps it’s time to put Depp’s rebel actor image or reliance on props to bed.
Johnny Depp had upwards of thirty million reasons to sign on for the new Pirates of the Caribbean outing—co-star Ian McShane suggests Depp is “paid more than the national debt of most countries”—and for that kind of money you’d think he could at least pretend to enjoy wearing Captain Jack’s bandana for the fourth time in eight years.
But he doesn’t.
Perhaps he’s just tired of playing pirate, or maybe he has finally realized the limitations of the swishbuckler but what was once a sublime characterization has become nothing more than his children’s (and their children’s) guaranteed annuity. An actor as gifted as Depp needs stimulation, (and frequently a funny hat, see: Alice and Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and the sooner he abandons the Pirate ship and leaves the family franchise phase of his career behind the better.
It’s hard to imagine that Depp is one of the least interesting aspects of this big budget monstrosity, but it’s true. Geoffrey Rush, fresh off his Oscar nominated turn in The King’s Speech, also takes a paycheck here, but at least tries to shiver the timbers. Ditto Ian McShane. Perhaps they’re both hoping for some spin-off action once Johnny tires of the whole rigmarole, but at least you can’t see them actually reaching for the money.
Not that Depp is entirely to blame for the failure of the movie. Director Rob Marshall shoulders much of the guilt here. People pay money to see the Pirates movies for two reasons, Johnny Depp and the crazy action sequences. The stories have never made any sense, and in that aspect On Stranger Tides doesn’t disappoint, but Johnny’s disinterest and action scenes that are as exciting as you’d imagine an action sequence directed by the guy who made Nine sink the ship.
When I say failure I mean as a piece of entertainment. This is a guaranteed lock for number one with a BO gross that will make Captain Kidd’s legendary buried treasure seem like chump change, but profitability, while important to the suits who green light projects like this, is exactly what’s killing Captain Jack.
Guaranteed licenses to print money don’t come along very often, but when they do Hollywood often takes a counterintuitive approach to their cash cows. Why try that hard, Pirates seems to be saying to us, when people will lay down their money no matter if the story is silly, if the picture is so dark you can’t see the action, if our star has other things on his mind, if this simply plays like a trailer for the inevitable Pirates of the Caribbean 5: Do You Have Any Money Left? Let’s not try to improve or, God forbid, change the formula, the movie gods declare. Let’s stay status quo. Unfortunately status quo kills.