Johnny Depp’s Last Great Movie

Universal Pictures

Johnny Depp’s latest movie, Mortdecai, is hitting theaters this weekend, and by all accounts it’s horrifically unenjoyable. Which you probably could have guessed. The trailer, the goggly-eyed posters and, hell, even the title with its superfluous T all pointed to self-parody without self-awareness. It shows Depp at his most rubbery, trying so damned hard to make a mustache wink that you could almost see him panting.

That’s our consistent vision of the actor now, at least. A caricature who loves putting on funny hats or facial hair and acting absurd despite the silence coming from the crowd. In a way, that persona feels new, with every thinkpiece written about him tilting reverently toward a time in recent history when he wasn’t so desperate and cartoonish. When we loved him. When he was great.

So I started wondering how long that’s actually been going on, which led me to question what his last truly great movie was. The process was a little discouraging.

Before we start, let’s toss out some stipulations on finding that film.

  1. He needs to be the star or co-lead (we can’t just name-drop 21 Jump Street and call it a day).
  2. The movie needs to be live-action. Not to discredit vocal work in any way, but there’s a sense in which Rango is the star of Rango, not Depp. If that makes sense. (If it doesn’t, just say Rango, and we’ll call it a day.)
  3. That’s all.

Based on this criteria, I’m tempted to land on Public Enemies from 2009 (skipping over starring turns in Transcendence, The Lone Ranger, Dark Shadows, The Rum Diary (which was decent), Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, The Tourist and Alice in Wonderland). It’s an ensemble, but Depp does thoroughly grounded work as John Dillinger, sneering through unshakably confident eyes at every John Law that ever lived. It’s also potentially (reverse knock on wood) Michael Mann’s last great film. It’s a puzzle piece ensemble that works well – a harsh drama glued together seamlessly with gun fights – and Depp is an important key to its success.

That’s not bad. It’s only six years ago, and even the best have slumps. At the same time, it feels weird to think of it as “great.” It’s really good, and it’s definitely the most recent proof that Depp can act (as opposed to playing Bugs Bunny), but great? That’s might be pressing it.

But before we track further back in time, I want to point to that list of movies that I skipped over (which didn’t include cameos and bit roles), because I think it tells a compelling story about how Depp has earned his current public persona. In that very, very short amount of cinematic time, he’s starred in 7 movies. Almost all were big budget, 4 of them required wacky make-up and 1 turned him into a living computer man. This is a lot of one kind of thing – a loud kind of thing – to experience in a short amount of time from one actor. It’s overwhelming, but part of the problem is that most of these movies were aggressively bad. When Depp started playing a Rolling Stone Pirate in the Caribbean, there was a great sense of Benny and Joon fun cranked up by blockbuster fuel. It was questionable until we saw it work. Then, he kept pressing his luck, betting on one default setting.

The bottom line is that Depp has been a cartoon since the 1980s, but we haven’t thought of him as a hack until we stopped liking the cartoon thing.

Moving on to the hunt for his last great movie, there’s a decent argument for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. That skips over Sweeney Todd (sorry, fans) and PotC: At World’s End, and drops us in 2006.

PotC: DM’sC was a surprisingly great sequel that managed to expand on the world of the original (which was also surprisingly great) without diminishing the characters or the adventure. It’s uncomfortable to think about it in these terms considering the direction that Depp has gone in, but the very role he’s failed miserably to recreate is undoubtedly his last best one. Not only is it so iconic that it allows him to dress up for charity, it’s also fantastically lively and nuanced in the way that the best clown acts can be.

It’s also appropriate that Depp’s last great role be a weirdo born from a Disney park ride, but if you can’t accept that, my final offer is Blow. That puts us all the way back in 2001 (!), skipping over Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Libertine, Finding Neverland, Secret Window, Curse of the Black Pearl (haters) and From Hell. Say what you will about his refusal to show any range as of late, George Jung is a hell of a role, and he’s uncomfortably vivid thanks to Depp.

Plus, it offers another narrative: that Depp is at his best as a criminal, sometimes brilliant as a clown and at his worst as a cartoon.

If you’re still unconvinced, I offer Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as a last chance safety net. I also offer the hypothesis that Depp simply hasn’t been in that many great movies.

He was nominated for Oscars for Sweeney Todd and Finding Neverland (which is ridiculous) as well as the first Pirates of the Caribbean (which is kind of cool), but his best roles have been overlooked by awards committees. Some were probably too weird (Fear and Loathing), too niche (Dead Man), not prestigious enough (Donnie Brasco) or hidden behind impressive animation (Rango, Corpse Bride) that voting bodies refuse to credit.

Ultimately, what’s weirdest about his career isn’t the oddball characters he’s played, but that he’s become a populist movie star. That would have been a tough call to make after Cry-Baby and Edward Scissorhands. “Someday, he’s going to be your grandma and niece’s favorite actor!” said no one at the time.

Searching for his last “great” movie turns out to be a fruitless adventure, not because he isn’t profoundly talented and not because he hasn’t been in excellent films, but because it presupposes that there was a time in his career where he was on a roll. It assumes that he had a phase where he was exclusively making great films, and that he’s somehow fallen from that perch in recent years.

As it turns out, he’s never consistently knocked ’em out of the park, meaning that this current incarnation isn’t a new chapter or a slump, it’s just business as usual. Who’s ready for Pirates of the Caribbean 5?

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector [email protected] | Writing short stories at Adventitious.