Destroy All Monsters: Leave Johnny Depp Alone
OK, seriously: what did Johnny Depp ever do to you?
I know, I know. It's just fashionable to hate him right now and lord knows, fashion is our main deal in these parts. The rise and fall and rise again and fall again of one of Hollywood's preeminent movie stars reached some kind of crisis point over the past couple of weeks on the internet, when (if you weren't reading the tweets too carefully) Depp invited himself into the homes of every person in America and personally took a dump on their coffee tables, or (as is more accurately the case) he quietly released a go-nowhere January comedy called Mortdecai.
As of this writing, we know of no actual cases of anyone being forced to see Mortdecai at gunpoint. (Gunpoint might have helped the grosses, actually.)
The long, sad tale of the erstwhile Edward Scissorhands is yet another object lesson in how distorted movie fandom's relationship with the people who make movies has been, and shall apparently remain. It's the "take a dump" analogy that seems most apt: the fact that, just by continuing to appear in motion pictures at all, Depp can apparently be treated as though he is committing some kind of ongoing aesthetic crime against all of us.
For a detailed review of the phases of Depp's career, I recommend Scott Mendelson's. For my part, let me say that I love the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, but otherwise have about as little interest in most Depp-starring projects these days as I have understanding of why they seem to vex everyone else so much. Who cares?
I don't think it's reasonable to expect a performer, or anyone really, to retire just because we've lost interest in them. Frankly I don't think it's reasonable to expect them to retreat from public life even if it can unequivocally be proven that they're no longer good at their job - and of course, nothing about an art form can be unequivocally proven, so we have to allow that Depp is probably just as good at his job as he ever was. And yes, even under very stringent guidelines, Mortdecai still qualifies as an entry in an art form; and at $4M for the weekend, it's a box office disaster, but $4M' worth of people still wanted to see it. That's not nothing.
How does Johnny Depp fit into all this? Well, as you'd expect, weirdly. At the very height of the current pantheon of movie stars there are a few key archetypes. Hanks: the everyman. Streep: the character actress. Lawrence: the hero. Clooney: the statesman.
And then there's poor Johnny, whose branding of "painfully idiosyncratic character actor" fit just fine when he was making low-rent indie westerns and failed psychological thrillers about men returned from space. Then The Curse of the Black Pearl happened, and everybody lost their minds. (Curse indeed!)
There are no "painfully idiosyncratic character actor" movie stars, because movie stardom and idiosyncracy do not work together. Movie stars are the McDonalds lunchtime menu in human form: they have to appeal to the broadest possible range of people in order to qualify for the appellation in the first place. They're salty, bad for you, and mass-consumed, just like Chicken McNuggets or the late, great McDLT.
In order to fit into that pantheon, Depp's brand - and, arguably, the way he does his job - had to evolve. Depp's job used to be to do extremely specific things in extremely specific contexts. He was good at it, and while he was doing it, the fact that his movies continuously made little or no money was basically a badge of honour.
As a movie star, though, Depp's entire approach can be filed into a new, clearly-identifiable archetype. He's Depp: the Clown.
He rushes headlong into goofball lunacy that none of the other movie stars would ever attempt, precisely because it would make them look too silly and, therefore, be too much of a smudge on their brand. Will Smith wouldn't play the Mad Hatter. George Clooney couldn't pull off Jack Sparrow on his best day.
Depp's brand, the Clown, is elastic enough to allow him to play the Big Bad Wolf one week and Mortdecai the next. It lets him wedge himself into whatever ridiculous Tim Burton movie he's been assigned to (and Burton, indeed, is another "painfully idiosyncratic _______" whose pre-success brand evolved into something his post-success watchers seem to fervently hate).
Sure, Depp's Willy Wonka was actually ten steps creepier than Gene Wilder's (and that's saying something), and his Sweeney Todd was off-key, and his Mad Hatter remains a fascination of bland unusualness so precisely suited to Depp's brand that, of course, everyone actively hates it. Throw Tonto and Rango on that pile and the problem becomes clear:
Depp plays characters who just bug the shit out of people. And I'm beginning to suspect he does it on purpose.
Even when Depp reins it in - as a reincarnated computer man in Transcendence, or a shot-on-video 1930s hood in Public Enemies - he's transgressing a space that one can scarcely imagine any of the other performers even taking a shot on. And again, that seems to be his main preoccupation, artistically and professionally: he is repeatedly, faithfully at the center of experimental and off-kilter work, which has amounted to a slew of misfires and maybe-fires that have dogged him since he hit the apex of his mainstream popularity in 2006.
I suppose the heart of the problem is simply what we expect of our blockbusters, which, since Pirates of the Caribbean, is where Depp lives whether he likes it or not: we expect, and even insist, that blockbusters always be Good and Fun and Exactly What We Want. Referring back to the McDonalds analogy, we tend to refer to blockbusters as the Big Macs of filmmaking, and by god, our Big Mac better taste exactly the way we expect.
Johnny Depp has never tasted the way anyone expected, except in that we've come to expect him to taste ridiculous and somewhat off-putting. It's a bad brand to own, "ridiculous and somewhat off-putting." McDonalds would never try it. But why are we all on Team McDonalds all of a sudden?
Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture. Matt Brown is in Toronto and on twitter.