Why ‘Mortdecai’ doesn’t work: Johnny Depp is not a movie star
The problem with Mortdecai is that no one knows what it is about. The trailers focused on a snarky, uppity Johnny Depp parading around in a ridiculous moustache, pretending to be British and zinging out unfunny one liners while making his lips convey the condescension in addition to his voice. If The Lone Ranger proved anything, it is that no one wants to see Depp mugging for the camera in a main role. Depp is not a movie star. He doesn’t draw people to the movies; he just adds value. Yet, for Mortdecai, Depp is the only selling point.
Depp is a great character actor, but character actors need someone to fill the main role because the best stories contain a character arc, and the supporting roles rarely ever have those arcs. In Pirates of the Caribbean, Jack Sparrow works as a character because the movie isn’t about him. It is about Orlando Bloom’s Will Turner and Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth Swan. They go through the growth as does the villain, Barbossa. Sparrow gets to remain himself because the audience can see the character arc of the other players in the film.
Depp is greatest when he is allowed to be quirky, but the actor plus concept roles that worked so well in the past, usually teaming him with Director Tim Burton, aren’t star driven. They are concept driven with casts that support Depp’s quirkiness and still allow the audience a connection with others in the film. In Edward Scissorhands, it was Winona Ryder’s character that audiences could connect with.
Depp can make a film work, but he needs help from the rest of the cast. He needs a straight man; he needs someone that the audience can see themselves in. In The Lone Ranger, he acts against a cardboard cutout in Armie Hammer as the title character. The film would have better off called Tonto, but even so, when Depp is cavorting on the big screen reminding everyone that he is a superior being, he just accentuates the arrogance that most Americans dislike about him rather than playing up the self-confidence that Americans love.
It could be that Mortdecai is a good film though reviews have said differently. The problem is it looks like Depp is mugging for the camera against a series of cardboard cutouts who include Gwyneth Paltrow. Until Hollywood and Depp figure out what makes him a good investment (like his role in Into the Woods), Depp will keep making flops.
Scott Mendelson makes the case that Johnny Depp was never a movie star for Forbes.com. He published before I was able to write my thoughts on the subject, and he did a lot more with the numbers. Watch Romney’s Review of Mortdecai.