The saddest part of Mortdecai‘s abysmal debut this weekend was how expected it seemed to be. Johnny Depp’s latest starring vehicle, in which he plays a daffy British bon-vivant jetting around the world to find a stolen masterpiece, aimed to be a kind of Pink Panther-esque caper, but American audiences stayed away in droves, and the critics unloaded. “In the end, we must lay the badness of Mortdecai at the feet of its star,” wrote New York‘s David Edelstein. “I envy Depp’s capacity for self-amusement, but it’s a pity he’s so rich and enbubbled that no one dares say to say to him, ‘Er, Johnny… this is, er, really very bad.’”
Mortdecai is expected to barely crack $4 million this weekend, making it Depp’s worst wide debut since 1999’s The Astronaut’s Wife. But most everyone saw this debacle coming: the comedy opened in less than 2,700 theaters—indicating a startling amount of indifference from the exhibitors towards a major Hollywood superstar—and many of the nation’s leading film critics couldn’t be bothered to review it. (Those who did chime in pilloried the film with a 12 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.) Though Depp currently has a hit in theaters, with a supporting role as the Wolf in Into the Woods, Mortdecai is his fifth consecutive stinker as the film’s star, following in the wake of Transcendence, The Lone Ranger, Dark Shadows, and The Rum Diary.
His last real blockbuster was the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean film, On Stranger Tides, cashing in again as Capt. Jack Sparrow. Recall that Depp spent the bulk of his 30s thrashing against Hollywood’s square-peg efforts to make him the billon-dollar star he looked like on the poster, and that it eventually happened only after his cockeyed portrayal of Capt. Jack is a delightfully ironic gag that pleased him to no end. But Depp used the success of the Pirates franchise as an endorsement of a tic—his “aria of weirdness” that requires him to hide behind characters rather than disappear into them. Since Capt. Jack gave him carte blanche, there’s been Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Sweeney Todd, Alice in Wonderland, Dark Shadows, The Lone Ranger,Transcendence, Into the Woods, and now, Mortdecai. Some of these characters were pretty fabulous concoctions, but together, they mask something else: For an actor who can literally make any movie he chooses, Depp has fallen into the type of creative rut that would’ve made 1995 Johnny Depp roll his eyes.
Depp is a kindred spirit with Marlon Brando, a mentor who became a close friend after they worked together on Don Juan de Marco. Brando set the standard for ambivalence towards his own creative profession, and Depp seems to have picked up the master’s baton. “What is really satisfying is, like Marlon, getting to that place where he just didn’t give a f-ck,” Depp recently told Details magazine. “First, I reached a point where I cared so much and was so diligent in terms of approaching the work. Then you get to where you care so f-cking much that it gets goddamn beleaguering, you know? But then a great thing happens. Suddenly you care enough to not give a f-ck, because not giving a f-ck, that’s the total liberation. Being game to try anything.”
Who am I interpret what both men really mean by this, but I will posit that Brando’s best work didn’t necessarily happen when he attained that acting nirvana. For all Brando’s brilliance, it’s not difficult to recognize the films where he clearly didn’t give a f-ck. (Hint: It’s not Waterfront or Streetcar.) An argument can be made that many of Brando’s heralded later roles, from The Godfather to Last Tango to Apocalypse, took place during his total-liberation, just-winging-it-off-the-cue-cards phase, but those films had something that Depp currently lacks: a brilliant and driven director who had a vision and refused to let Brando coast. Not to diss David Koepp, Wally Pfister, Gore Verbinski, or Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (The Tourist), but they’re not exactly Coppola or Bertolucci or Kazan.
In September, Depp will star as Boston mobster Whitey Bulger in Scott Cooper’s Black Mass. It’s the first Depp role to really be excited about since Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, in part because Depp isn’t playing a cartoon character and also because Cooper (Crazy Heart) is the kind of director who might just be brave and dumb enough to tell Depp when he sucks. Depp, like Brando and other actors who can afford to own their own island, needs a director who’s at least two of the following: visionary, obsessive, tyrannical, and insane. Someone who very much gives a f-ck, and will raise holy hell when Depp doesn’t.
Depp is only 51, and he can still play characters much younger. He’s admitted contemplating retirement, but he’s got decades of great work ahead of him, if he chooses. But that might require a certain amount of submission to a director instead of the total liberation ideal to which he currently aspires. Currently, in addition to Cooper, he’s lined up to work with Kevin Smith, James Bobin, and music-video newcomer Matthew Cullen. Here are five other filmmakers who might be able to help Depp get back on top—at the box-office and in the hearts of film lovers.
This is a no-brainer, and apparently, the two men agree. “We would love to work together,” Tarantino told Charlie Rose in 2012. “We’ve talked about it for years … I just need to write the right character that I think Johnny would be the guy to do it with. And if he agrees, then we’ll do it. And then it will be magical.”
Tarantino truly understands and appreciates the power and meaning of stars, in the Old Hollywood sense. He famously crafted a role around the very essence of John Travolta in Pulp Fiction, and he’s worked wonders with Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio as well. He has a way of locating the original allure of an actor before it was lacquered in fame—while simultaneously using that accumulated celebrity to the character and story’s advantage.
The Coen brothers
The Coens also have a soft spot for the eccentric types that Depp worships, so it’s not difficult to imagine Depp as the George Clooney character in some version of O Brother, Where Art Thou? or the Brad Pitt character in Burn After Reading. Even a film like Lebowski is in Depp’s neighborhood. In fact, in an alternate universe, the Coens could’ve been Depp’s Tim Burton—though obviously with a much lighter makeup budget. I have high hopes for an eventual collaboration.
The director of The Wrestler and Black Swan has a way of pushing his actors physically and emotionally out of their comfort zones. Depp hasn’t been out of his comfort zone since… Sweeney Todd? And that was primarily because of the musical demands of the role. Aronofsky, if absolutely nothing else, has a singular vision for his films and he isn’t one to be easily intimidated by a star. He’s also pals with Paul Bettany, Depp’s three-time co-star, so an introduction could surely be arranged.
Gus Van Sant
Sweet and sensitive. They’re qualities that describe many of Depp’s most popular earlier roles, as well as the air he still projects today in television interviews. Van Sant’s best movies, like Milk or To Die For, are thoughtful and precise, and it’s easy to imagine the two men hitting it off personally and artistically. Johnny Depp in a Gus Van Sant joint sounds and feels like such a more promising proposition to me than Depp trying to be something he’s not for a more adrenalized director like David Fincher or Paul Greengrass.
Alejandro G. Iñárritu
One can’t help but listen to Michael Keaton and his co-stars marvel at the experience of making Birdman, which was high-wire, no-net acting that required extremely long takes, and not think how Depp might be invigorated by such a process. It’s one thing to be “game to try anything,” it’s another to be so totally prepared that when that opportunity arrives, an actor knows exactly what to do with the moment. Of course, Iñárritu isn’t structuring all his movies like Birdman, but he’s the perfect filmmaker to help an actor fall back in love with his craft.