Johnny Depp’s latest film Mortdecai is just a few days away from its North American release. Three years back a Johnny Depp film would have evoked a much greater sense of excitement and enthusiasm than what Mortdecai is witnessing. Blame it on his poor choices in films or just bad luck, Depp has seen a bit too many flops since 2011 that makes me deeply worried about the fate of Mortdecai. A January release and the relatively muted buzz around the movie seems to indicate that Depp’s career may continue to spiral in the only direction in has seen in these recent years — downwards. If it somehow turns into a blockbuster, I would be surely delighted to see him back in the thick of successful movies. But for now, let’s look back at those movies that have brought upon us such a day wherein the success of a Johnny Depp film is not a foregone conclusion.
The Rum Diary (2011)
It all started falling apart towards the end of 2011, though few would have known then that this could possibly be the beginning of the end. The year 2011 was looking like another typical success-filled year for Depp with a hit animated movie Rango early on followed by a bigger blockbuster in the form of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Then in October 2011, Johnny Depp played a journalist in the movie The Rum Diary which was based on the book written by Depp’s friend and acclaimed journalist, Hunter S. Thompson. It was an off-beat movie, not the kind that can easily be seen as box-office potential. In hindsight it is a bit of a surprise that the studio allowed $45 million to be earmarked for the production. Note that Depp had been part of a previous movie adaptation of a Hunter Thompson novel, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which had released in 1998 and was a box-office failure. A similar fate lay for The Rum Diary. The movie barely managed $23 million at the box-office, and though Depp’s acting was not criticized, the movie’s rambling narrative seems to have put many people off. It still could be termed as an “artistic” choice for Depp, and a sentimental one considering his friendship with Thomspon, and so I lay little blame on his doorstep for this one.
Dark Shadows (2012)
Johnny Depp has a penchant for doing something out of the ordinary. Of all the strange and exotic characters that he has played, the notable one missing was a vampire. Maybe to satisfy that urge of donning the long cape, maybe to put on those fangs, Johnny Depp chose to be a part of Dark Shadows. It did not seem to be a bad choice initially, considering the movie was based on a popular TV series of old, and also the fact that people love to see Depp play the out-of-the-ordinary role. Dark Shadows was directed by Tim Burton after all, who has frequently collaborated with Depp (right from his breakthrough role in 1990’s Edward Scissorhands), and to whom I assume Depp can never say no. I just wish he had! Dark Shadows was too poor a horror/comedy flick to be called a Tim Burton movie. It had a rather tepid storyline, it unnecessarily tried to be funny, and it hardly had any “horror” moments. It wasn’t the worst movie you will see, but it definitely did not do justice to its $150 million production budget (which is huge!). The movie managed to earn $246 million worldwide which would not have been enough for the studio to recover its production budget, forget about the marketing budget. To be honest, Johnny Depp was not too convincing as the lead character of Barnabas Collins, lacking his typical style and attitude which made his crazy roles of the past so unforgettable. Dark Shadows fell flat from all angles.
The Lone Ranger (2013)
The studios still believed in Johnny Depp’s global appeal and his ability to attract audience on a large scale. Disney surely did. It was willing to put $200 million (production budget alone) to make a movie in which Johnny Depp would not even be the central figure. The infamous The Lone Ranger of 2013. Based on a radio series of the past, this movie placed Johnny Depp as the sidekick Tonto to the titular character played by Armie Hammer. It was a gamble by Disney to not build the movie around Johnny Depp since Armie Hammer was not too well-known a personality then. The gamble did not work, but the blame does not lie with Armie Hammer. The Lone Ranger was in all aspects a mediocre film, and not reflective of the work of the man who created Pirates of the Caribbean series, Gore Verbinski. The movie lacked that larger-than-life feel to justify its humongous cost, and despite a lucrative summer release, it earned only $260 million worldwide which made it one of the biggest flops of 2013. This movie, above all else, hurt the brand “Johnny Depp”. His performance in itself wasn’t that bad, nor was it scintillating. Whenever Depp tries to do something new, we expect it to be charismatic, enthralling, captivating. When it is only a shadow of his previous avatars, such as Jack Sparrow or Edward Scissorhands or Mad Hatter, it leads to disappointment. That is what happened with The Lone Ranger. It looked as if Depp is being forced to, either by people around him or by himself, to continue to play strange characters, to continue to have a strange speech style or a strange walk, to continue to look and act different, which seems to have been overdone now. He should not have been a part of The Lone Ranger, he should not have chosen to be another goofy character and that too a sidekick, but he did choose. And it backfired!
In Hollywood, you are usually remembered by your last performance as an actor. In 2014, Johnny Depp had the chance to wipe the slate clean and turn things around in April with the $100 million budget sci-fi film directed by debutant Wally Pfister, Transcendence. In it Johnny Depp played a reputed scientist in the field of artificial intelligence who is fatally shot but his consciousness is uploaded to create a sentient machine. It was as ‘normal’ a role as Depp could have played, hardly challenging for an actor of his caliber. He put in a decent shift, and did what was asked of him. The movie though tanked badly at the box-office. It made only $103 million worldwide, becoming a big failure of 2014. It did not make friends among the film critics nor did it attract the attention of enough audience. The movie’s theme, though one worthy of a discussion, was never fully explored and was not brought to a right conclusion to make it appealing. The whole idea was lost somewhere in a weak script. Nor was this truly a Johnny Depp film, as the other two actors, Rebecca Hall and Paul Bettany enjoyed a large chunk of screentime. So what do we blame Depp for? We blame him for choosing to be a part of this film, to be willing to roll along with the flow of things. Johnny Depp is surely a big enough personality in Hollywood that he could be a bit more choosy about his films. He may have taken a gamble on The Lone Ranger along with Disney, but the same cannot be said for Transcendence. It seems like a lazy act, something I find strange to associate with Johnny Depp. But I can think of no other reason.
What lies ahead of Mortdecai for Johnny Depp? Well, 2015 is an exciting year for him. He has three more films slated for a release, though the release dates may very well change. Most exciting amongst the lot is the crime drama Black Mass which also stars Benedict Cumberbatch. Then we are going to see the return of Mad Hatter in the sequel to Alice in Wonderland in 2016, and later we will have Jack Sparrow back in our midst as the fifth movie of Pirates of the Caribbean series sails to shore in 2017. Johnny Depp’s career is far from finished, and it is highly likely that we will see him rise back from the ashes again. Hopefully though, some important lessons have been learnt from this fateful period. After all, the ones at the very top are the likeliest to fall, ain’t it?