What happened to Johnny Depp? Wasn’t there a time when he was more than a steampunk scarecrow made out of black eyeliner and whatever was found in the dumpster behind Urban Outfitters? Didn’t he used to be cool? In spite of the fact that Johnny Depp’s public image has morphed into that of a petty, vain, abusive asshole who allegedly keeps a sound engineer on retainer because he’s too lazy to memorize his dialogue (reportedly, Depp’s dialogue is fed to him via an earpiece he wears on set), prevailing logic would dictate that he was cool at one time. Very cool. In fact, as late as THE LONE RANGER, I was still insisting he was cool. It wasn’t until his bizarre portrayal of Whitey Bulger as Nosferatu in Fonzie drag in BLACK MASS that I finally realized that Depp isn’t just currently uncool, he was always uncool.
In retrospect, the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN series was one of the worst things that could have ever happened to Depp in that it raised his profile, revealed his one-note tics and made them so goddamned inescapable. Even before PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL, Depp played almost every role like a precocious theater kid who wings you with his bamboo cane in the halls of The San Diego Comic Con because he got way too into his Charlie Chaplin cosplay. The main difference is that he was doing it in disposable, quietly-released-in-February fluff like DON JUAN DeMARCO, CHOCOLAT and BENNY & JOON. Critically acclaimed films like ED WOOD, FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS and EDWARD SCISSORHANDS obfuscated his more commercial endeavors and helped maintain his cred as a cultish, arthouse fixture. Even if one or two of those cultish, arthouse fixtures carried the sort of safe, mall-punk qualities of a Hot Topic hoodie. Depp was a B-list leading man but an A-list character actor, he was Crispin Glover minus all of that Andy Kaufman-esque face kickery: quirky, but not too weird for your mother. Depp carried the vibe of an indie minded Hollywood outsider but only because we were getting him in measured doses. Of course, after the first PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN film, the world started mainlining him and it wasn’t long before all of us were hunched over, grinding our teeth and left with the bitter realization that we all got burned on this deal.
Yet, in spite of the fact that I carry almost no respect for the infinity scarf wrapped mummy formally known as Johnny Depp, I can’t help but keep up with his career. A misplaced sense of nostalgia for films like DEAD MAN have left me dopesick waiting for the next fresh hit of buzzy, warm, mannered quirkiness. Who knows, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES could be the right kind of summer garbage that could help us all relive that massive, toe-curling high? Right? Well, no. I should have known from the trailers that DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES was a waste of time. Seeing a 54-year-old Depp pretend to be drunk in a Rasta wig yet again is like watching a 53-year-old Bob Denver slip back into his red polo shirt just to make an ironic appearance on an episode of ALF. There’s a sense of overwhelming sadness behind it. Imagine someone begrudgingly repeating that scene from STEAMBOAT BILL, JR. where the house falls around Buster Keaton for fourteen years. Now imagine someone doing it because they need the money to buy 70 custom Les Paul guitars and a giant red, white and blue cannon to fire the ashes of every dead writer that appeared in Tom Wolfe’s New Journalism. It ceases to be sad and morphs into infuriating. And understand, DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES is infuriating. Like an estranged, unloved family member who shows up uninvited at your birthday party but still manages to look bored and annoyed, DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES feels like it’s doing you a favor simply by being there even though you haven’t really thought about the franchise since 2007. Yet in addition to DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES’ clear disinterest and misplaced sense of obligation to exist, it’s also impossible to follow. Granted, this isn’t exactly a new observation. This complaint has plagued the franchise since the beginning. However, I’m not sure if these movies are hard to follow because they’re convoluted or if it’s because PIRATES is so boring it’s difficult to pay attention to whatever bullshit is unfurling on screen. Either way, I have no clue what’s happening in DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES.
One of the first few images we see is Orlando Bloom and he has barnacles all over his face. He is a ghost? I think? It’s up to his sylph-like, blank slate, walking Bop Magazine pin-up of a son (GODS OF EGYPT non-entity Brenton Thwaites) to reverse his ghostiness with a trident that doesn’t exist but does? I guess? I don’t know. From there Jack Sparrow trades his magic compass for rum and this somehow allows an undead Javier Bardem to leave the confines of a Bermuda Triangle-like purgatory to kill Jack Sparrow and also track down the trident that doesn’t exist but does. For some kind of a reason. I’m assuming. Nothing is clear nor does it matter. Oh, and in case you had a burning desire to understand Jack Sparrow’s relationship with a character we’ve never met before, we get an overlong origin sequence needlessly explaining the rivalry between himself and Bardem. Long ago when Jack was just a hastily generated CGI bobblehead with lopsided, weirdly proportioned facial features, he tricked Bardem into steering his pirate ship into a bunch of rocks, causing him and his crew to explode into a series of poorly rendered ones and zeros. Other things happen too. For example, a sassy, cleavage lady (Kaya Scodelario) is nearly executed for loving science but learns her father (Geoffrey Rush) has an ornate peg-leg, Paul McCartney appears in a fleeting cameo but isn’t recognizable or funny, penises are alluded to as a reminder that some of us have handled them and it is hilarious. Eventually it all ends with confusingly written sequence that appears to be the end result of an extensive reshoot (Bardem’s character suddenly has the ability to possess the living? Why is this the first time he’s taking advantage of this power?) on a set that looks like a churro stand, Snow White’s Scary Adventure and somebody’s angry, red-faced mother nearly slapping a crying nine-year-old are in danger of sneaking into frame. In other words, it’s a mess filled with way too many characters, a surfeit of meandering action sequences and far too many undeveloped storylines that trail off into nothing. DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES is essentially just out of sequence footage of two different, late period Robert Altman movies edited into stock footage of exploding pirate ships. Why is something that’s based on a dark ride where things are never more complicated than the sight of pirates getting outsmarted by a dog insist on only the most impenetrable, befuddling world-building and plotting?
When Depp has finally shuffled off this mortal coil (presumably with his personal sound engineer in tow, who will be buried alive right next to him in his spirally, Tim Burton designed tomb in order to accommodate an eternity of all of those ALICE IN WONDERLAND and PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN sequels he’ll be making in hell), it’s clear what series of films Depp will be remembered by. PIRATES and Depp are so closely intertwined, that you can’t describe one without inadvertently describing the other. Both arrived at just the right time, both seemed fresh and interesting at first and both eventually became tiresome, self-important tchotchkes collecting dust on the bureau of the apartment of that friendless Wiccan woman whose body was found in front of her TV as it blared the DVD menu of THE CORPSE BRIDE for nearly six days straight. It would be nice to say that DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES has effectively stalled Depp’s career but considering that he will be appearing in seven upcoming films, including a pair of wannabe franchise tent-poles, it’s safe to say we’ll probably never escape this much-loathed-but-still-inexplicably-bankable leading man who reminds you of that slimy dude at a party who makes fun of your taste in music while he tries a little too hard to sell you on the virtues of polyamory.