In Mortdecai, Johnny Depp trades in Keith Richards’ hand-me-downs (Pirates of the Caribbean), pancake makeup (Alice in Wonderland) and vampire fangs (Dark Shadows), and birds on his head (Lone Ranger) for a fancy mustache as a signifier of his hopefully delightful quirkiness. I’m not exaggerating. That freakin’ mustache of his has actually been a centerpiece of the film’s marketing campaign. It didn’t work. Mortdecai is now Depp’s third box office flop in a row after Transcendence (which lost at least $30 million) and The Lone Ranger (which lost at least $190 million), not counting the cameos he made in Disney’s Into the Woods and Kevin Smith’s Tusk since Transcendence came out last April. It’s not that Mortdecai is a bad movie, necessarily. It’s more that from the opening minutes you find yourself overwhelmingly bored with yet again watching Depp be all quirks and funny voice. As SoIPondered put it, “It is 2015 and at this point of time we’ve suffered through 13 years of this odd caricature of Johnny Depp.” I.
It’s not exactly like Depp has ever consistently been the guy to dabble in normal, instead going from Edward Scissorhands to Ed Wood to Sleepy Hollow to From Hell to Pirates. It’s just that we’re so familiar with his bag of tricks by now that the AV Club recently called a list “Scarf-less and accent-free: 8 times Johnny Depp played an ordinary human being!” to remind us that he once played a normal teenager in Nightmare on Elm Street and a twentysomething small town grocery clerk with a screwed up family in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? In fact, one of my personal favorite Johnny Depp performances is arguably him at his most restrained, playing the rather meek Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie in Finding Neverland. The AV Club ultimately argued that Depp is simply far too much of a pretty looking and adventurous performer to bother with everyman roles. However, maybe he needs to dial back on that whole “adventurous” thing for a minute and do something to remind us that he’s an amazing actor, not just some Quirky McQuirkinstein whose artistic impulses have been overindulged since striking gold with Captain Jack Sparrow.
Because right now we’re watching Depp fall from Hollywood’s A-list. He finally joined that list in 2003, catapulted by Jack Sparrow into the ranks of genuine, bankable movie stars. Heck, he even got an Oscar nomination for his performance in that first Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s not like that was the start of some new trend of the Academy nominating actors from big budget blockbusters. If it was, they would have nominated Christian Bale for Batman Begins (2005), Robert Downey, Jr. for Iron Man (2008), etc. No, that perk stayed exclusive to Depp. Not too long after that, he was commanding a salary of $20 million per film. Now, he’s taking less than half of that for Mortdecai (his salary is thought to be somewhere between $6 and $10 million), and has had to take a significantly reduce upfront fee for upcoming films Black Mass, Alice: Through the Looking Glass, and Pirates of the Caribbean 5. After his recent failures, his bargaining power is greatly diminished.
Yeah, we’re really going to weep for him. Oh, poor Johnny Depp, he’s only making $10 million now when he used to make $20 million. As Chandler from Friends would say, I’m sure his wallet is still too small for his fifites, and his diamond shoes are still too tight. There used to be a time when Julia Roberts made $20 million per movie, too. Now, she barely even acts anymore, although that appears to be by choice. The only actors still charging $20 million per movie are Angelina Jolie, Denzel Washington, and Leonardo DiCaprio, although Daniel Craig is technically getting paid $20 million for the next James Bond movie. Hollywood has simply decided that Johnny Depp isn’t worth $20 million anymore.
It’s not exactly like Depp actually needs the money. By his own admission, he has been paid “stupid money” for the Pirates films, with WhatCulture reporting that the franchise has earned him nearly $200 million, the third-highest payday for an actor in film history. Sadly, he’s going right back to the greatest hits, with the Alice in Wonderland sequel due next year and Pirates 5 in 2017. However, he might yet remind us he’s more than just his quirks later this year in Black Mass, a Whitey Bulger biopic directed and written by Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace) and co-starring Kevin Bacon, Benedict Cumberbatch, Joel Edgerton, and Sienna Miller. Depp has the lead role as the head of the Boston crime family who became an FBI informant, and then turned on them, going into hiding for 16 years, ending up as their 2nd Most Wanted Fugitive behind Osama Bin Laden.
Depp is still the guy who showed up in that hilarious, vanity-free cameo in 21 Jump Street, just as he did years ago in Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare and has done so again in Tusk. He’s still the guy capable of a moving, subdued performance in the likes of Finding Neverland and over-the-top hilarious turn in something like Cry Baby. In short, he’s still a really good actor, an incredible likable one on top of everything else. After years of Jack Sparrow and now Mortdecai, we may have forgotten that. Hopefully Black Mass will remind us how we used to love him. Then again, it could ultimately be as forgettable as his turn as John Dillinger in Public Enemies. We’ll find out when Black Mass arrives on September 18, 2015.