Destroy All Monsters: Leave Johnny Depp Alone

Contributor; Toronto, Canada (@tederick)
to Vote
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.

to Vote
Screen Anarchy logo
Do you feel this content is inappropriate or infringes upon your rights? Click here to report it, or see our DMCA policy.
Johnny DeppMortdecaiPirates of the CaribbeanDavid KoeppEric AronsonKyril BonfiglioliGwyneth PaltrowPaul BettanyEwan McGregorActionComedyMystery

More about Destroy All Monsters (Matt Brown)

Around the Internet

pinkJanuary 28, 2015 10:22 AM

It's not about his acting,that is good.It's about the dumb shit he says in interviews and his being drunk in public that is causing all of the hate.He recently slammed other actors for being in bands too but he himself has done that his whole career.That makes him a complete hypocrite and there is nothing worse then being a hypocrite.

KurtJanuary 28, 2015 11:50 AM

Exception: Clooney makes a pretty good run at Depp-ish super-clown in The Coen Brothers' O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU?

GuestJanuary 28, 2015 11:53 AM

You could read the real interview on german and you could see he never slammed other actors for being in a band, he was talking about himself and how it would make him sick to know people follows his music only because they watched his movies...i think now we could blame him also for how bad the translators are. Or American magazines unable to translate from german to english.
And who cares what he does with his life. If he wants to be drunk all day doesn't affects you or me, nor his work as an actor

pinkJanuary 28, 2015 11:57 AM

It's not just that.It's like I posted earlier it's also his getting drunk in public.BTW do you have a link to the original German interview.Thanks.

GuestJanuary 28, 2015 12:02 PM

Look to it by yourself. Almost all the press conference is online...
Almost nobody watched that award show (it had one of the worst ratings ever), so? all the people who watched his drunk speech was in youtube and make him a trend. If you watched it, it was because you wanted to see it. Don't blame him. Blame yourself. He didn't oblige you to watch it. He doesn't even obliges you to watch his movies if you don't want to. Don't act butt hurt as he's throwing at your eyes watched it because you wanted to do it

pinkJanuary 28, 2015 12:07 PM

He looks like a complete moron and so do YOU.

Willy BillyJanuary 28, 2015 12:51 PM

The only moron here is you, you clueless tool.

Willy BillyJanuary 28, 2015 12:54 PM

Not really. He never said any dumb shit recently and he always apologizes when something he says offends some people. He slammed those who become musicians all of a sudden and release music to capitalize on their fame. He has never done that. He was a musician before he became an actor so how exactly does it make him a hypocrite?

pinkJanuary 28, 2015 1:10 PM

Will,what are you a stalker?Btw Johnny does use his movie career to play 'rock star'.Why the fuck do you think his famous musician 'friends'let homer play with them?Do you really think they would let him play on stage with them if he were not already famous for doing movies?Even if he is a great guitar player they would not give him the time of day if they were not fans of his movies.I mean if he were a plumber who could play guitar really good he would not be aloud to come on stage with them.

QinlongJanuary 28, 2015 1:31 PM

Thanks for this article. It's good to have some reason thrown in into the irrational bashing. It seems most people either get carried away into unconditional love or bash senselessly like they've got some personal grievance. Often one after the other.

Willy BillyJanuary 28, 2015 1:46 PM

Um, yeah he is a great guitar player and musician and that's why all of these legendary acts worked with him.

Ronnie PickinpaughJanuary 28, 2015 5:35 PM

Getting drunk in public? What a traaaagedy

Ronnie PickinpaughJanuary 28, 2015 5:37 PM

Does mutual respect ever factor into your ham-fisted grudge you got against the guy?

omnisemantic1January 28, 2015 8:04 PM

Pinky, you're on the wrong website - off to the IMDB forums where you belong.

malJanuary 29, 2015 1:32 AM

There is something up with Depp, I can't pinpoint it, but his choices seem on purpose. He's always been a bit of an oddball. In the 90's he was very much a hipster actor. Since 21 Jump Street, his projects were always going against the teen idol mantel the industry tried to put him in, always doing indie films and outside mainstream roles. He tried big budget mainstream Nick Of Time and that didn't work, and he went back to the Ed Woods and Gilbert Grapes. But in the last 10 years since Pirates, he's been on the big budget rush, seems kind of odd. Has he changed? is this some kind of purposeful thing? I dont' know. But I would liken him to some other "oddball" actors like Val Kilmer, Nicolas Cage, Marlon Brando (Depp and Kilmer were friends of Brando in his later years and hung out with him, Depp and Cage were friends before fame) it all kind of makes sense. I'm leaning toward that he's changed, taking into account his divorce around Pirates fame and these big budget duds. But then i think he's doing something we're not aware of for a specific purpose because his characters are still odd/weird. Gah! oh well, we'll probably never know.

Also, thinking back on Depp in the 90's I would refer people Tim Burton's poem "Johnny Depp" written by Burton in 1990s:

malJanuary 29, 2015 1:42 AM

Well, he's known to be rather shy in his public appearances. He's admitted this and he rarely does TV interviews and when he does, he can be a little awkward. I think that could explain the drunk part, trying to lessen his nerves or whatever
But I really think he's changed over the last 10 years since Pirates...divorced around this time, doing these dud big budget roles since. He used to be such an outsider, on purpose.

ZetoJanuary 29, 2015 9:01 AM

I never, ever, like him.

Todd HarringtonJanuary 29, 2015 3:17 PM

Good piece, but I have a thought to share:

"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)."

I think the very end of that is where some of the assumptions to your thesis fail. I personally don't believe people get a hate-on for Burton or Depp now because they have had success -- I think it's more likely because their success has allowed them to make not-very-good films and get away with it, time and again.

One of the worst things that can happen to an artist, imo, is to reach a point where people will not say "no", for them to lose the barriers they must struggle against.

Few artists had as many as Burton or Depp, for the very reasons you define -- they were a true odd-ball team, bound together in both their outsiderness and their auteurism.

Until they had achieved the levels of success they did.

Now, the struggle turns -- not from who won't say "no" to your project, but which one will say "yes" first and with the greatest degree of autonomy. And the results usually change accordingly.

Does anyone look at EDWARD SCISSORHANDS or ED WOOD and think they don't measure up to CHOCOLATE FACTORY or BIG EYES?

Am I saying that interference from a studio hack (ahem, ahem) would have helped those later projects? No, not necessarily. But just as the studio-only creative process of the Marvel Films leads to a cookie-cutter product that even my eight-year old has taken to dissembling during their running time, no surprise left for him as the plotting of IRON MAN 3 = AVENGERS = GUARDIANS = MOON KNIGHT or whatever, so too has the weight and power of Tim Burton as "Tim Burton" and Johnny Depp as "Johnny Depp" led them into diminishing returns.

MORTDECAI would have been an under-inspired, lackluster affair with any other actor -- reading the various scripts should have show everyone that. But when someone with the style, talent and influence of Depp santifies a production by agreeing to make it -- no gun to his head, either -- it does cause a disturbance in the fandom force because, once again, no one said "no" because they assumed we would all say "yes".

cristal2011January 29, 2015 3:31 PM

Nowadays it seems fashionable for critics to vilify great stars such as Angelina Jolie, Johnny Depp, etc. Pure hatred and jealousy on the critics' part. Those who can not critic, those who can go and make blockbusters. I saw Mortdecai, it was funny, witty, entertaining; this movie is not for the illiterate, not all comedy rely on profanities. Go see Mortdecai, it is a hoot.

Violet Blue ®January 31, 2015 5:53 AM

My opinion:

Depp went full Thompson.
You should never, ever go full Thompson.

Hunter S. Thompson used to come down to the SRL shop and sleep on our couch. One night, we had to physically pull a flame thrower (one we'd made) out of his hands because *we* were worried he'd burn the shop down.

I think Depp went full Thompson and just never cared to come back.

donnaFebruary 3, 2015 5:41 PM

Nobody cares whether you like him or not.

donnaFebruary 3, 2015 5:42 PM

Agreed on all accounts.

ZetoMarch 12, 2015 11:03 PM

It is exactly the same... the other way around. ;-)

Willy BillyOctober 24, 2015 6:19 AM


Really?July 31, 2016 1:33 AM

Well , what about being a wife-beating alchoholic druggie hypocrite?

Really?July 31, 2016 1:36 AM

Hollywood Vampires

Really?July 31, 2016 1:37 AM

Bwaaaa Haaa Haaa Haaaa