Having long since overcome the pretty boy canard, Johnny Depp seems to have now moved into “actor’s actor” territory: he was just nominated for the best actor Oscar for the second year in a row, this time for his role as J.M. Barrie, creator of Peter Pan, in Finding Neverland, following last year’s nom for his Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.
Following my tradition of not catching much of anything in the theater you wouldn’t take a 5 year-old to see, I can’t comment yet on Finding Neverland , but Depp’s thriller Secret Window, based on a novella by Stephen King, debuted on HBO Saturday night, and following that we put on the DVD of Pirates again, being a flick mightily in the favor of the whole family. Besides we wanted to get the bad taste of Secret Window out of our collective mouths.
In Window, Depp plays a mystery writer who suffered/inflicted the mutual trauma of finding his wife (Maria Bello) at a motel with another man (Timothy Hutton) six months earlier, and who has been living in rustic near-isolation on a lake in upsate New York ever since, trying to write, taking a lot of naps, and trying to come to grips with a life teetering in the balance.
He is accosted by a menacing Mississippi backwoods writer (John Turturro) who claims Depp stole his story about a man who murders his wife and published it under his own name, which is bad enough, but worse still it becomes clear, is the allegation that Depp changed the ending of the story.
What begins promisingly enough deteriorates into a series of — and this is difficult to achieve — increasingly implausible AND increasingly predictable contretemps and revelations that yield a wholly unsatisfying ending which I am certain you can guess just from what little I’ve dribbled thus far. And it isn’t even very scary or suspenseful.
No matter: my concern here is Depp, and a powerful, charismatic actor can still shine in a bad movie, but shine here Depp does not. He is wooden, mannered in his “distracted and troubled artist” get-up: multicolored mangy hair, tattered, holey sweater, vacant look in his bespectacled eyes. He can’t seem to muster the wherewithal to play terrified or terrifying (as appropriate), and the only time he seems to fully inhabit the role is when he is sacked out on the couch: THAT he does with conviction.
It is remarkable that someone who is often so good — and never more so, at least from a heroic/comedic standpoint, than in Pirates — can also be so unengaged and unconvincing. This reinforces my theory that great roles play the actors rather than the other way around: that the role molds the actor to its contours rather than the actor creating the character, just as writers speak of characters taking on lives of their own or musicians “finding” songs rather than writing them. Captain Jack was just such a role for Depp.
Sparrow is an “honestly dishonest” pirate in full florid regalia (braided and beaded beard and hair, piratical vestments and weaponry), full quiver of swashbuckling physical skills (acrobatics, swordsmanship, seamanship), full complement of twinkling dark-eyed charisma. But on this last note turns the wonderful specificity of Depp’s pirate, for all his live-wire force of personality, he is quite measured and avuncular in his relationships with both his reluctant young pirate-in-training Orlando Bloom, and the object of Bloom’s chivalrous longing, Keira Knightley, the governor’s daughter.
Though Sparrow always maintains sight of his own long-term goals of keeping his skin (more or less) intact and regaining his rightful place at the helm of the Black Pearl — his beloved vehicle of “freedom” wrested from him by mutinous first-mate Geoffrey Rush and crew — he does so within definite parameters of decency and respect for those deserving. Much of the abundant humor of the film comes from the juxtaposition of Depp’s character’s manifest skills and his air of sun-dazed amiable distraction: a cross between Errol Flynn and Jeff Spicoli.
Ultimately the difference between Depp’s roles in Pirates and Secret Window is energy: he positively crackles with it in Pirates as he surrenders himself to the role, allows it to play him and comes fully alive in the process; in Window he’s just there, marking time until the next nap.