In July, a guy on Twitter with the user name @chapmangamo claimed to have pinpointed “the exact moment that Robert De Niro stopped caring.” The answer, based on Rotten Tomatoes scores for De Niro’s films, was 2002, the year of Analyze That, City by the Sea, and Showtime, a cop movie with Eddie Murphy that I’m not 100 percent sure actually exists. Setting aside obvious caveats about the reductive nature of aggregate critic scores and the quality films that De Niro has made in the past 14 years — “The Intern was decent” is a hill that I will die on — this “De Niro fail” story got me thinking about other actors that have seriously fallen off in the past decade or so.
It got me thinking about Johnny Depp.
Johnny Depp is having a terrible 2016. Personally, he just concluded a messy divorce from estranged wife Amber Heard, who has publicly accused Depp of spousal abuse. Professionally, Alice Through the Looking Glass bombed in the U.S., though it looks like the film will be rescued by foreign markets. On Friday, Depp’s second feature of the summer, the Kevin Smith-directed Yoga Hosers — a “wretched thing,” according to our own Mike Ryan — opens in theaters. Then there’s London Fields, an already infamous film that Depp made with Heard and Billy Bob Thornton in 2015 and that apparently expedited the end of his marriage, which will supposedly be out by the end of the year.
Let’s not forget about Depp’s music career, which lately involves touring with the thoroughly depressing classic-rock cover band Hollywood Vampires. The Vampires are rounded out by Alice Cooper and Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry, and the concept is that they perform songs by musicians who 1) once drank with Cooper back in his ’70s Sunset Strip heyday; 2) and now happen to be dead. (The playlist includes hits by the Doors, David Bowie, T. Rex, Jimi Hendrix, and Harry Nilsson.) I traveled to a rock music festival in the rain-soaked northwoods of Wisconsin last month to see the Vampires perform live, not long after the band’s tour was nearly derailed by Perry’s on-stage collapse and subsequent hospitalization. Everything was gray and wet and the audience sat huddled on wooden benches and vaped while Depp led the band through songs like “Rebel Rebel” and “Jeepster.” It was like watching Making a Murderer as hosted by Rikki Rachtman.
I could go on and list the multitude of other misses-to-downright-disasters in Depp’s recent filmography: Mortdecai, The Lone Ranger, The Rum Diary, The Tourist, Dark Shadows, Transcendence. Out of respect for the mercy rule, I’ll stop there. I’m not a Depp hater — I thought 2015’s Black Mass was okay and I’ve defended 2014’s Tusk, Depp’s previous Kevin Smith collaboration, more times than I care to admit. But it’s clear that these are not Depp’s salad days.
However, none of this is due to Depp “not caring.” Does a man who does not care travel to Wisconsin to play T. Rex songs in the rain for a few thousand people? Does a man who does not care go through all of the pointless trouble to make himself look like this?
To the contrary, Depp cares a lot. Way too much, in fact.
Depp’s golden era occurred between 1990 and 1997. If you have any positive feelings for him at all, chances are you were around for Edward Scissorhands, Benny & Joon, Ed Wood, Dead Man and Donnie Brasco. When you revisit those movies now, you notice something that he did then that he doesn’t do anymore — he plays actual human beings. And he does so in a relatively relaxed fashion, and with loads of charisma. Depp even lets you see his face here and there, without the metric ton of foundation that’s since become standard. About that face: Depp was pretty. Depp had the kind of face that instantly wins over women and makes insecure straight guys fume like Jake La Motta before he went to town on “Pretty Boy” Janiro in Raging Bull (a cornerstone film of De Niro’s “caring” period).
Watching Depp’s ’90s work reminds you that it’s been a very long time since Depp allowed himself to breathe comfortably on-screen. Now, Depp is so busy acting (for lack of a better term for whatever it is Depp does) that he’s plainly exhausting to watch. At the risk of descending into dime-store psychiatry: Depp for decades has pulled a self-La Motta on his own looks, making himself look weird, goofy, or downright ugly for the sake of increasingly belabored performances in tiresome films.
So, what is the exact moment when Johnny Depp started trying too hard? To answer this question, we can’t merely refer to Rotten Tomatoes scores. We have to look at the films themselves, and discern how and why Depp tries too hard. To help with this process, I created this chart.
On the Y-axis, I put degrees of caring in ascending order, and on the X-axis, I put Depp’s filmography. As you can see, Depp’s run from Edward Scissorhands to Donnie Brasco lies upon the median (or “correct”) level of caring, and then the degrees start to get dangerously high once he enters the 21st century with the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Finally, Depp goes off the charts with Mortdecai, and into the great beyond of caring so much that it can’t be properly measured.
At the center of this chart is 1993’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. I don’t know when you last watched What’s Eating Gilbert Grape but I recommend revisiting it. (It’s even on Netflix Streaming, so it’s easy.) Depp is really great in the movie. He plays a soft-spoken introvert with God-given cheekbones who works in a grocery store and can only articulate his innermost thoughts via the film’s soulfully philosophical voiceovers. In the ’90s, Depp embodied this type better than anyone in pop culture with the possible exception of Eddie Vedder.
Now, if you study the chart, you might assume that Depp took a wrong turn after Donnie Brasco. But I’d argue that the seeds of Depp’s destruction were sown on Gilbert Grape — not because of anything Depp did, but because of the accolades the film subsequently garnered for Depp’s co-star, Leonardo DiCaprio.
As you might remember, DiCaprio plays Depp’s brother Arnie, an 18-year-old kid with some sort of developmental disability. (The film never determines the specifics of Arnie’s condition.) Watching DiCaprio made me uncomfortable when I revisited Gilbert Grape this week, just as I feel uncomfortable whenever an actor plays that kind of role. DiCaprio’s approach is thoughtful, but it’s still feels… weird. (We do live in a post-Tropic Thunder world, after all.)
Nevertheless, people loved Arnie at the time of Gilbert Grape‘s release. For DiCaprio, Gilbert Grape was a pivotal film in steering him away from teen idol status and toward Serious Actor Status. Depp himself made a similar transition with Scissorhands three years earlier, but DiCaprio was even more successful with Gilbert Grape, in that it garnered him his first Academy Award nomination. Now, when people talk about Gilbert Grape, they normally lead with DiCaprio, even though Depp is technically the film’s lead actor.
Here is where I get wildly speculative: I believe that from Gilbert Grape on, Depp decided that he would never allow someone else to be the Arnie in his films again. From now on, Depp would be the Arnie.
For instance, in the Pirates films, Depp plays Captain Jack Sparrow, who starts out as an ostensible support character for the film’s more conventional hero, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom). But Depp blows away Bloom because his character is far more flamboyant and show-offy (and also because Orlando Bloom is Orlando Bloom). In the Pirates films, Sparrow is unquestionably the Arnie.
In the Alice in Wonderland films, Depp is the Mad Hatter, aka the Arnie of Lewis Carroll’s universe. For Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Depp Arnie’d the hell out of Willy Wonka. Depp has pulled other Arnie moves in small movies (as the object of desire in 2000’s Chocolat), medium movies (as the rogue CIA agent in 2003’s Once Upon a Time in Mexico), and mammoth trainwreck-y movies (his bonkers Tonto in 2013’s The Lone Ranger was the ultimate Arnie move). Sometimes, Depp’s Arnie maneuvers are low-key: He’s relatively restrained in 2009’s Public Enemies, for instance, but playing bad guy John Dillinger was a sly Arnie move on Christian Bale, who’s stuck playing the film’s staid protagonist, Melvin Purvis.
In films where Depp plays the obvious lead character, nobody is allowed to be more interesting than he is. Raoul Duke in 1998’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is incapable of being out-Arnie’d. Benjamin Barker in 2007’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and James “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass are colorful villains who put Arnies in the ground.
As Guy LaPointe in Kevin Smith’s Tusk and Yoga Hosers — the first two films of the so-called “True North” trilogy — Depp is once again an Arnie, hiding himself behind a mustache, beret, and cheesy French-Canadian accent. The conceit is that Depp has once again “disappeared” into a character, but his Arnie-ness is visible from a mile away. Even in a pair of low-budget, low-stakes Kevin Smith vehicles, Depp can’t let himself relax. There’s always a wig, mustache, or vocal affectation to try on. Depp is stuck in Arnie mode, when he would be better off going to back being Johnny — assuming that guy who was so likable in movies back in the ’90s still exists.