Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...
Celebrating 17 Years of Film.Biz.Fans.
by Eric Kohn
July 20, 2012 1:29 PM
3 Comments
  • |

Critic's Notebook: Whither the Weirdo? By Working With Wes Anderson, Could Johnny Depp Save Himself?

Johnny Depp will appear in Wes Anderson's next project.

It's been a while since Johnny Depp was in a movie really worth talking about. The lone recent exception is a project in which he was nowhere to be seen. The actor's playfully gonzo voiceover work for the 2011 Oscar-winning animated feature "Rango" provided a helpful reminder of Depp's distinctively off-kilter performative strengths, which the oddly digressive movie echoed as well. But most of his recent work has lacked the qualities that usually make Depp stand out.

While Depp has never lost hold of his eccentric brand, most of his recent projects fail to reflect it. Even "The Rum Diary," ostensibly an opportunity for the actor to resurrect his penchant for impersonating Hunter S. Thompson's loopy mannerisms and psychedelic worldview, felt like a missed opportunity that contained Depp's chameleonesque skills rather than unleash them. Whither the weirdo?

This week brought news that he may have sought sanctuary with Wes Anderson. Basking in the glow of the combined commercial and critical success of his latest whimsical achievement, the infectious ode to childhood romance "Moonrise Kingdom," Anderson has lined up plans for another European jaunt, this one entitled "The Grand Budapest Hotel" and set to include Depp in a cast that also reunites the director with longtime collaborator Owen Wilson.

Since scant details are available about the project right now, it's hard to say whether Depp will take on a prominent role in the movie (one assumes he gets at least a little more screen time than his recent cameo in "21 Jump Street"). Nevertheless, the move suggests Depp desires a retreat from his own self-made brand, a panoply of dreamers and gothic misfits largely defined by his roles in countless Tim Burton movies. It was Burton who gave Depp an escape from the superficial glamor of teen heartthrob status with a starring role in 1990's "Edward Scissorhands," which firmly recontextualized the actor's moody stare with added levels of mystique that have since come to dominate his public image.

But in recent years that image has started to falter. Depp's last truly noteworthy performance -- aside from stunt work like the phoned-in weirdness of his Mad Hatter portrayal in Burton's "Alice in Wonderland" -- arrived with his initial turn as Jack Sparrow in the first "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie. He also exuded notable creepiness in "Sweeney Todd," although the role largely resembled many earlier ones.

That looks like a stroke of brilliance, however, compared to most recent Depp movies (I won't speak for "Dark Shadows" since I haven't seen it, but reviews suggest I didn't miss much). In addition to the awfully bloated fourth "Pirates" movie, Depp also starred alongside Angelina Jolie in "The Tourist," which Ricky Gervais openly mocked at the Golden Globes without apparently insulting either star. They knew it was a stinker.  

In recent years Depp's image has started to falter.

Depp's screen presence works so well in Burton's movies because Burton is one of the few commercial filmmakers able to aestheticize dark, gloomy images without negating a certain pop-friendly effusiveness. That apparent paradox is embodied by Depp's eerie blank stare, which can look awfully out of place on the physique of a Hollywood star. Properly contextualized in Burton's oeuvre, however, it can show that untold layers of soulfulness lurk beneath the surface of his splashy appearance.

Because no mainstream filmmaker can get away with telling dark stories like Burton can, Depp's weirdness rarely reaches its potential in non-Burton projects (one of the few exceptions is his work with Terry Gilliam on "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," naturally). But Wes Anderson movies empathize with a different sort of loner than those found in Burton's movies, so there's reason to hope that Depp's upcoming role will utilize him in heretofore unseen ways. More than that Anderson has scored a big-name actor, Depp has scored a terrific opportunity.

To date, everyone in a Wes Anderson movie talks like they're in a Wes Anderson movie. Walking a fascinating line between deadpan comedy and earnest expressions of yearning, Anderson's screenplays -- in addition to the fetishistically arranged visuals that bring his universe to life -- emanate directly from his capricious headspace. While not quite as radical a move as, say, Adam Sandler working with Paul Thomas Anderson on "Punch-Drunk Love," the Depp casting implies the actor has shifted gears at a moment when he almost certainly needed to do just that. But one can assume that, no matter how much he buries himself in the role, he will still look a little lost. He would have it no other way. 

3 Comments

  • Joan | July 31, 2012 4:38 PMReply

    Your point is well taken. Depp needs to go after project that allow display of his talent. commercial blockbuster he is involved in, decreases his chances for getting a chance. to be part of a film that makes use of his great talent

  • Holly | July 28, 2012 12:45 AMReply

    I’ve recently been on a Johnny Depp kick, and I’ve been watching all of his movies through Blockbuster @Home. I can add as many movies (or games) as I want to my queue, and I only pay a small amount per month, so I’m able to watch a lot for very little. I’ve showed this article to one of my co-workers at Dish this morning, and we both agree that Depp doesn’t need saving. He’s already a mega-superstar, and I think it’s time for him to have fun in the roles that he chooses to take on. I think if Clooney, Pitt, Leo or Damon were even offered roles that Depp has taken on, they would do so in a heartbeat. Let the man be, and if he plays a “serious” role somewhere in his future then I’m sure he’ll say yes to such a script, but for now, I love his work.

  • JD | July 22, 2012 2:42 AMReply

    Johnny Depp has curiously gone the other way of the top 5 leading men of his generation (Leo, Clooney, Pitt and Damon in no particular order) and instead of pursuing roles that require more depth in character as they grow older (that could potentially land them the Oscar they all so desperately crave) he has instead chosen to go after more commerical options like Pirates 4, Dark Shadows and the upcoming Lone Ranger remake. The Grand Budapest Hotel (or whatever it finally gets called) should give him the opportunity to display something more than just his ability to dress up in unusual costumes and make up. Overall though it is perhaps telling that between those 5 men that they only have 2 Oscars (One which is for screenplay), for all their promise early on this generation of leading men has become victim to the box office chase with 4 billion dollars in box office between them but have been surpassed in the acting department by the Daniel Day Lewis's and Phillip Seymour Hoffman's of the world.