Trailing Bacardi breath and mascara stains, Johnny Depp’s gloriously dandyish buccaneer in Pirates of the Caribbean alerted the moviegoing masses to what art-house patrons (and 21 Jump Street aficionados) have long known—no other American actor working today can do as much for a film’s watchability. Depp is often called a scene-stealer, but that’s a misleading epithet for someone whose performances tend to be as unselfish as they are boldly conceptualized. Not only are his instincts for embellishment and effacement infallible, his commitment to the material is beyond reproach (and sometimes the call of duty), though he also knows when to initiate an amicable separation—ignoring (or at least reinterpreting) the movie he happens to be trapped in, almost as an act of compassion. Among Depp’s career highs are dream-match oddball beauties like Dead Man, Ed Wood, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; but it can be even more impressive to witness his robust immune system in action, creatively withstanding—and even resuscitating—the likes of The Ninth Gate, Chocolat, The Man Who Cried, and The Astronaut’s Wife.
The latest beneficiary of the Johnny Depp charity is a notably needy case. David Koepp’s thriller Secret Window hinges on a single, singularly transparent Big Twist (those acquainted with current trends in genre hoodwinking will figure it out about 10 minutes in; everyone else will need another 10). Adapted from a Stephen King novella, the film lurches tiredly through the author’s favorite masochistic-narcissistic fantasy, subjecting a woebegone writer to a gauntlet of abuse. Depp’s blocked, beleaguered Mort Rainey is holed up in his lakefront cabin, resentfully enduring a messy divorce and fending off baseless but impassioned charges of plagiarism from a Mississippi dairy farmer (John Turturro), who shows up one day brandishing a dog-eared manuscript and a hissing, psycho-hick drawl that suggests he’s just come from a double bill of Night of the Hunter and Cape Fear.
Acknowledging his scenario’s flimsiness and his lead actor’s strengths, Koepp keeps the tone tongue-in-cheek, egging on Depp’s deliciously baroque take on the writing life. Mort, who subsists on Doritos and Mountain Dew and spends most of the day napping, is a radiant vision of suave shabbiness—modeling oversize glasses, Cobainish bedhead, and a ratty, ripped bathrobe (when stepping out, he changes into an L-train-worthy argyle cardigan and skullcap ensemble). Eccentric scribbler that he is, Mort also talks to himself a lot, often conversing with an intrusive voice in his head. Seeing his ex (Maria Bello) with her new man (Timothy Hutton) outside their old suburban manse, Mort’s inner narrator solemnly channels David Byrne: “This is not my beautiful house. This is not my beautiful wife.” As his character’s stress levels escalate, Depp gets even more inventive—the TMJ facial calisthenics and jaw clicks are a brilliant touch—but Koepp ungratefully sinks his efforts in a quicksand bog of meta-nonsense. “The only thing that matters is the ending,” Mort declares in the closing seconds, just as the director is serving up a colossal (and literally corny) stinker. But for Depp, it’s yet another daunting mission accomplished with wit and ingenuity. Next up: J.M. Barrie, Willy Wonka, and syphilitic satyr-poet the Earl of Rochester.