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

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

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.  

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. 

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