BRUCE HANDY ON CULTURE
by Bruce Handy
An ode of sorts to Johnny Depp: I’d see him in pretty much anything—which, alas, is the approach you have to take with Johnny Depp, since he has spent most of his career being consistently terrific in mediocre to awful movies, the dish by Thomas Keller tarting up an Applebee’s.
This bittersweet epiphany was prompted by having just watched Dark Shadows, his eighth collaboration with director Tim Burton (see our photos of the Dark Shadows cast here). It’s a big, sloppy mess of a film with all kinds of wasted talent, most notably Helena Bonham Carter, playing a nicotine-voiced middle-aged lush so routinely conceived as to ward off the actress’s usual flair for the perverse; and Chloë Grace Moretz, who sulks uninterestingly through a handful of scenes until (spoiler alert) she gets to turn into a werewolf at the end, but even then she only has time for a few good snarls. (Throughout the film she holds her lips in an exaggerated, bee-stung curl that my daughter, a teenager herself and possessed of some familiarity with temperamentality, tried to imitate. “It hurts,” she said.) Eva Green, the previously boring French actress who played the Bond girl in Casino Royale and made a notably naked debut in a Bernado Bertolucci movie (The Dreamers, 2003), is funny and vampy as the villainess here—who knew?—though a whiff of misogyny clings to her character like the kind of low-lying night fog that drifts through so many Burton films. If only he were as good and careful a storyteller as he is a production designer.
But as you surely figured, with or without having seen the trailer, Depp is a joy as Barnabas Collins, infusing the gothic camp of Jonathan Frid’s original Barnabas, from the old ABC soap opera, with extra helpings of doomed, Byronic corn. It’s a hammy performance in the most wonderful, calculated way, simultaneously committed and winking. That’s harder to do than it looks, I’m guessing, but Depp is unique in having fashioned an A-list career primarily by submerging himself in eccentric roles. Most movie stars play variations on themselves, or if not themselves then fixed screen personas; Depp is more of a shape-shifter, like Meryl Streep, but if she were possessed by the ghost of Mel Blanc. He single-handedly makes Dark Shadowswatchable, and if there were an Oscar equivalent of Most Valuable Player, he would be the early front-runner.
Like always. Movie stars are supposed to carry pictures; that’s the job description. But I can’t think of another so essential to his film’s successes. Tom Cruise flashes a great grin and sweats an excellent sweat in the Mission: Impossible films and surely earns his salary—I’m not being dismissive here, though can’t you imagine the films working just as well with Matt Damon or Will Smith? And yet, who aside from Depp could play Captain Jack Sparrow? Jim Carrey? Ugh. Robert Downey Jr.? Well, maybe, but I doubt to quite as effervescent effect. The Pirates of the Caribbean movies are possibly the least deserving blockbuster hits of the last decade—I’ll admit I’m going out on a limb here; it’s like trying to choose the most Reggie Mantle–like Mitt Romney gaffe—but even the franchise’s most ardent fans would have to concede there’s nary a non-Depp reason to keep an eye open. Did anyone other than IMDB even notice that Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley weren’t in the last one?
Here’s a thought experiment: has Depp ever been in an unrelievedly great movie, one that had lasting virtues aside from his own performance? Naturally, I haven’t seen everything he’s done, so I’ll leave you to make the cases for Chocolat or Don Juan DeMarco, but I can think of one: 1994’s Ed Wood, a small masterpiece and, to my taste, far and away the greatest of his collaborations with Burton, possibly because its subject was making art—even if it was bad art—and not just art direction. Still, it was their biggest failure at the box office. I wouldn’t put theirAlice in Wonderland in the same category as Ed Wood, or even near it, but I did enjoy the film, partly because Alice in Wonderland doesn’t ask to be coherent, which plays to Burton’s strengths, and partly because, for once, Depp had a worthy foil in Bonham Carter, whose Red Queen stole the movie out from under his Mad Hatter. That was a first, and surely a last, in Depp’s career.