Johnny Depp is my #1 Fantasy Crush, my first Fantasy Husband, and one of the few actors I will see in anything. I’m a big fan and a massive apologist and I own both of those things, but now, even I can’t deny that Depp’s prolonged midlife crisis is really bumming me out. I had my come-to-Jesus moment with The Depp during Dark Shadows, the latest in his eccentro-quirktastic partnership with Tim Burton. That movie is…not good. It’s not completely repellant—as is always the case with Burton the production design is insane and it’s a gorgeous film to look at. And the acting isn’t bad, either. Depp is very committed and even quite good as time-displaced vampire Barnabas Collins. The problems come largely from the script, which is bereft of character development and the humor is caught somewhere between too broad for camp and too weird for mainstream appeal. There’s a lost, meandering quality to Dark Shadows—there’s no there there.
Which is why I checked out on watching the movie and started wondering what’s been going on with Depp over the last decade. Obviously, he’s having some kind of personal crisis, but his career is flailing in a strange way, too. Strange because it’s not like he doesn’t make money. Even the terrible Tourist did well, thanks to international box office. And Pirates of the Caribbean: Give Us Your Gold rejuvenated that franchise. But there’s been a downward tick in the non-Disney movies lately. The Rum Diary did not do well, Rango—which is actually good—also underperformed, and now Dark Shadows is losing money. It’s looking like, unless he’s being Jack Sparrow, people are over Depp (does not bode well for next summer’s mega-budgeted The Lone Ranger). Depp built up his career through the 1990’s with deeply weird roles, often directed by Burton, making his name as the beautiful young man who would not be bound by his face. He was The Outsider. He was the Generation X James Dean. So what has happened?
I think, to an extent, there was an expectation that with mainstream success would come mainstream conformity. Compare Depp to his contemporary, Robert Downey, Jr. RDJ overcame significant personal demons and revived his career in the mid 2000’s, emerging as major box office in 2008 in Iron Man. RDJ is a weird dude himself, but it’s like, once he got his shit under control for the last time, he pulled together a reasonable facsimile of a working leading man and though he wears odd suits and makes questionable footwear choices, RDJ’s quirk does not get in the way of his commercial interests. His eccentricity is an enhancement, not a hindrance. It’s—Oh that RDJ, always with the purple glasses and the sneakers, but isn’t he so sexy and charming and great? (YES, HE IS.) Meanwhile, Depp’s eccentricity is slowly strangling his public persona under the weight of all those chains and bandanas. It’s become a liability. Because Depp isn’t really conforming to what we think he should be at this stage.
And maybe that’s fair. The man is nearly fifty and he’s dressing and acting exactly like he did twenty years ago. There’s some arrested development happening that is unappealing. But here’s where I’ll defend Depp, my last line of defense on his behalf. I have always said that Depp is a deeply weird dude. Hollywood is anxious to replicate him, to announce “the new Johnny Depp”. The problem with that is that to date, no young actor has been remotely close to as genuinely weird as Depp. We think he’s getting too old for his schtick but what if it’s not schtick? What if he really is just that bizarre?
Depp’s past decade has not been without merit. People have taken to discussing his (and by extension, Burton’s) last ten years like it’s a vast wasteland of shitty work. It’s not. Finding Neverland, Sweeney Todd (a Burton collaboration), and Public Enemies are all solid-to-good movies. He turned in above-average voice work for The Corpse Bride (another Burton flick) and Rango. And though the public may not want to buy what he’s selling, The Rum Diary, Dark Shadows, and The Lone Ranger are all passion projects. He’s doing the work he wants, regardless of the public reception. That two of those movies happen to be big-budget tent poles is beside the point. It does make me wonder, though, if he was using his Disney money and public good will to make little artsy indies like he did in the 1990’s, if we’d even be having this conversation. I strongly suspect a lot of the critical ire aimed at Depp recently has more to do with what people see as a squandering of his talent on kitschy mainstream projects than any real objection to the number of necklaces he’s wearing.
Johnny Depp is engaged in an unusual conversation with his audience. As the public shouts “you’re getting too old for this” and “tone it down”, Depp continues barreling down his oddball path, doing what he wants, making the movies he wants, regardless of whether or not the audience will be there for him. That’s the rebel spirit of filmmaking, man (said in Dennis Hopper’s voice). That he’s doing it with massive studio projects is actually kind of…funny. Increasingly, it seems like he doesn’t want us to like him, wants us to take him off the pedestal Captain Jack put him on. He’s burning through public good will like he really doesn’t care (again, does not bode well for The Lone Ranger). All that remains is to see what the final outcome is, if the box office of the Pirates franchise can continue to justify giving him hundreds of millions to make his next pet project, or if Depp will retreat to the Land of the Peculiar Things and lick his wounds with a low-budget movie about a man whose eyes are made of razor blades.