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Posted at 11:15 AM ET, 05/10/2012

‘Dark Shadows’ and the Johnny Depp question: Should he stop with the weird roles?

After a recent screening of “Dark Shadows” — the latest collaboration between director Tim Burton and actor Johnny Depp, and yet another cinematic opportunity for Depp to wear a lot of white face make-up — I had a fleeting thought: Maybe Depp should stop being weird. At least for a little while.

For more than two decades, John Christopher Depp has approached his career using his own unique artistic compass. Every once in a while he plays a character who falls into the category “normal,” at least relativly speaking — say, the seducer of Juliette Binoche in “Chocolat,” or “Peter Pan” author J.M. Barrie in “Finding Neverland.” But more often than not, especially when he works with Burton, Depp’s choices skew toward the bizarre, from melancholy creatures who never need reach for a pair of shears {“Edward Scissorhands”) to cross-dressing B-movie directors (“Ed Wood”) to creepy candy factory operators with Anna Wintour haircuts (Willy Wonka in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”).

For years, he was able to let his freaky flag fly on the semi-fringes of Hollywood. But after he defied Disney executives’ reservations about his performance in “Pirates of the Caribbean” and proved that playing a pirate as if he were a drunken member of the Rolling Stones was actually good for business, Depp earned the freedom to tackle offbeat parts in increasingly mainstream movies. Over the past nine years, he has generated more revenue for doing so than he had in his entire career prior to that.

But is Depp’s wacko routine itself becoming too predictable? When we see photos from the set of the upcoming “Lone Ranger” movie in which Depp, as Tonto, wears face paint and a dead crow on his head, do we think, “Ah, another exciting creative leap forward for Johnny Depp”? Or do we think: “Oh great. There he is in another role that’s going to inspire a bunch of annoying Halloween costumes”?

After seeing “Dark Shadows,” the least compelling Depp/Burton collaboration out of their eight efforts so far (Post film critic Ann Hornaday seems to agree), I was leaning toward annoying Halloween costume. As I watched Depp use his significant fangs to chew scenery as Barnabas Collins, the ancient vampire attempting to process contemporary life circa 1972 — “Reveal yourself, tiny songstress!” he screams as Karen Carpenter sings on a contraption called a TV — it felt like the well of Depp’s weirdness might have finally been tapped dry.

But then I watched Depp earlier this week on “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” where he was dressed, as always, like a dapper, slightly unkempt and undeniably handsome hipster. As noted yesterday in this blog, he admitted during that interview that he rarely sees his own movies. And that was a reminder that, at age 48, all this guy cares about is the satisfaction he derives personally from each gig. How those films are perceived and how he comes across onscreen? That’s not really a factor. There’s something admirable in that, even if also means that we currently face the prospect of a fifth “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie because, apparently, Depp didn’t see how boring the last three were.


(Warner Bros.)

Most of us live our lives under the impression that we will eventually have to grow up, get serious and stop playing dress-up games in which we wind up vaguely resembling Robert Smith from “The Cure.” Johnny Depp has never subscribed to that notion. Before Capt. Jack Sparrow came along, his approach seemed almost countercultural. But with Sparrow, Depp demonstrated that the subversive and the mainest of the mainstream — a Disney movie about a Disney theme park ride — can co-exist. He proved that it is possible to be your own, weirdest self without compromising and, even better, that a bunch of buttoned-up movie studio suits will eventually pay a ton of money to allow that weirdness to continue. He is the rare individual that a CEO, a Disney World visitor and an Occupy Wall Streeter can simultaneously embrace as one of their own.

So in conclusion, even though I didn’t like “Dark Shadows” as much as I wanted to and even though I still feel conflicted about this whole Tonto situation, I still salute Depp, the most beloved, eyeliner-wearing oddball in America. In a world where too many people look down on those who differ from them and where a lot of adults lock away their tendency toward healthy lunacy, we need Johnny Depp. We need him to remind us that it’s okay to get freaky — and that even if we fail at it, it’s okay to get freaky again, and again.

By  |  11:15 AM ET, 05/10/2012

Categories:  Movies | Tags:  Johnny Depp

 
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