If Johnny Depp had given a buzzy, funny, scene-detonating performance in The Lone Ranger that was clearly superior to the rattletrap Western around it, then perhaps the movie’s bleak showing at the box office wouldn’t count as a strike against him. As it stands, Depp’s black-and-white face paint and studiously deadpan acting as Tonto fitted all too snugly into the film’s overly fussy, not-entertaining-enough landscape. Depp, surely, will survive the wreckage (yes, Pirates of the Caribbean 5 is on the docket, as is his role as the Wolf in a film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods). But let’s pretend, for a moment, that The Lone Ranger — a notoriously troubled production whose budget ran to a reported $215 million, and that hauled in a relatively paltry $48.7 million over the five-day July 4 weekend — wasn’t a major commercial misfire. Let’s pretend it took in $80 million or even $100 million. A number like that would have confirmed Depp’s status as Hollywood’s reigning blockbuster mascot. Yet even if it had, what The Lone Ranger confirms to me is that Depp — who turned 50 last month, and has spent nearly 30 years in show business — is in a deep rut as an actor. He may think that he’s still rebelling against the studio system, but the system is now consuming him by letting him do whatever he wants.
Ever since his breakout movie role as the sensitive, pasty-white, razor- fingered title oddball of Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands (1990), Depp has enjoyed a special cachet as an actor. He built his brand on portrayals of deeply hilarious damaged souls — freaks, weirdos, deranged child-men with a dark side, monster-maniacs who had an alluring, elfin innocence. For quite a long time, only a select few of his movies were hits, usually when directed by Burton, his playful partner in goth eccentricity. Yet even when they were just charming trifles like Don Juan DeMarco (1994), or when he starred in a great, commercially disappointing un-Hollywood biopic like Burton’s Ed Wood (also 1994), Depp turned his goofball niche into something magical. He acquired a gently subversive aura that was rooted in how purely he gave himself over to these roles, how sympathetically he vibrated with them. That an actor as handsome (and as seemingly intelligent and centered) as Depp understood these misfits from the inside out said something rich about both his imagination and his compassion.
Not that that’s all he did. Donnie Brasco, the ’70s-style true-life undercover-cop thriller that cast Depp opposite Al Pacino in 1997, proved that for all his freak-show shenanigans, Depp could be a consummate straight actor. He gave a few other dead-on, no-frills performances, like his deft turn as a cocaine smuggler in 2001′s Blow and, that same year, his intense, overlooked work as a brainy British detective scouring the streets of London for Jack the Ripper in From Hell. But Depp no longer seems organically arresting the way he was in Donnie Brasco. In Michael Mann’s Public Enemies (2009), he played one of the most notorious gangsters in history, and he was like invisible ink. In spirit, he appears to have abandoned realism for the higher reaches of absurdist hipster clowning, but is that really a higher ambition — or is it now a shtick, a crutch, a cop-out?
By the early 2000s, Depp was everything a contemporary movie actor might want to be — except that he lacked that level of blockbuster ultra-stardom (something that he seemed not to crave). That’s when the flukiest act of his career happened. By playing Jack Sparrow, the cracked rummy pirate rotter of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), Depp didn’t just make himself over into a franchise icon: He did it — miraculously — without sacrificing his outsider rep. And he did it in a Disney film. Apart from the sheer hilarious audacity of his performance, Depp, in POTC, seemed to be subverting the machine-tooled soul of modern fantasy thrill-ride filmmaking by sneakily making his own obsession with comically unhinged madmen into the most commercial movie hook of the year.
The trouble with playing freaks, though, is that once you’ve played enough of them, they begin to resemble one another — and to look strangely conventional. Jack Sparrow was destined to wear out his welcome over the course of three Pirates sequels, and maybe that wasn’t Depp’s fault. But gradually (and I say this with the sadness of a total fan), the joy of watching Depp has been leaking away. It’s hard to pinpoint just when it started to happen, but I can testify that as someone who loved his Michael Jackson–meets–Anna Wintour-on-acid performance as Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), I found myself searching for the joke — and never finding it — in his Mad Hatter camping in Alice in Wonderland (2010). And as much as one can admire the bug-eyed, robot-voiced craziness of his impersonation of Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), when Depp decided that he simply had to revisit Thompson in the slack, one-note The Rum Diary (2011), it’s no wonder that almost no one in the audience wanted to go on the journey with him. Depp’s whole identification with Hunter Thompson — with his spirit of wretched excess — has, in a way, become the emblem of what’s gone wrong in his acting: He now seems to think that everything he does must be marked by its “outlaw” cred. It’s telling that in The Tourist (2011), a wet dud of a romantic action caper, Depp played a geeky math teacher as a collection of bizarre tics and mannerisms, as if ordinary normality were now beyond his reach. Let’s be clear: I’m not saying that Depp should never take a walk on the wild side again. It’s just that he’s been walking there so long, it’s starting to look like he’s sleepwalking.