Johnny Depp is an actor of skill and versatility, but when you break it down, most of his performances fall into one of two categories: Naturalistic Johnny and Over-The-Top Depp. In the former category, you have such quiet, finely tuned, nuanced turns as Donnie Brasco, Finding Neverland, Public Enemies, Blow, and Dead Man. And in the latter, you have the barnburners, the swing-for-the-fences stuff — wild performances that occasionally pay off, but often result in overworked indulgence. We’ll all find out Wednesday which camp The Lone Ranger falls into, but in the meantime, his most out-there work is ranked for you, from best to worst, after the jump.
Depp’s second collaboration with Tim Burton (and that filmmaker’s last good movie, incidentally) was this uproarious 1994 biopic of the notoriously incompetent director of such laughable fare as Plan 9 From Outer Space and Glen or Glenda? He plays the filmmaker as a wide-eyed, overly enthusiastic innocent, and it’s the right call — his gee-whiz line readings and joyful calls of “Cut! That was perfect!” are an exquisite counterpoint to the dreck he’s creating.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Depp’s celebrated performance as Raoul Duke, the alter ego of legendary gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, is mostly delivered as a growl, from behind a cigarette holder clenched in his jaw. But when he’s in the thrall of his highs, either in his hotel room or out in the desert, he offsets that calm with whooping fear and rampant paranoia, to great comic effect.
Once Upon a Time in Mexico
Director Robert Rodriguez added Depp to the mix for the conclusion of his Burrito Western trilogy (following El Mariachi and Desperado), playing a rogue CIA agent looking to hire a good assassin. Free of the burden of carrying the film in a leading role — that job is left to Antonio Banderas — Depp seems to see the part as a Sidney Greenstreet-style character turn, and has a great time shaking things up whenever he appears.
The flourishes and theatricality are appropriate for this 2004 drama, since Depp is playing a poet, raconteur, and general rake — well, a libertine. Still, he sure does seem to enjoy wrapping that slightly overcooked accent around Stephen Jeffreys’ already crispy monologues.
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
Let’s be clear: there’s not a reason in the world that a movie based on a goddamned Disneyland ride should have become a giant super-hit and spawned three sequels (and counting). But they had an ace up their sleeve: Depp, whose anachronistically contemporary yet giddily enjoyable Errol-Flynn-by-way-of-Keith-Richards swashbuckler gave the film its surprise kick. But that only goes for the initial outing; his schtick has grown increasingly thin with each entry, and has pretty much worn out its welcome by this point (not that that’s going to prevent the upcoming fifth installment).
Johnny Depp and Tim Burton seem to be good friends who enjoy working together, and their initial collaborations (Edward Scissorhands and the aforementioned Ed Wood, say) were fruitful for both. But for the past several years, they’ve been bringing out the worst in each other — Depp’s attachment helps Burton’s terrible movies continue to get made and get seen, while Burton’s non-direction allows Depp to indulge in every ill-advised, actorly whim. Depp was reportedly the driving force behind last year’s unfortunate film adaptation of the ‘70s vampire soap, but god knows why he wanted so badly to play vampire dress-up and showcase an accent that wouldn’t pass muster on a Saturday morning cartoon.
Alice in Wonderland
Still, Dark Shadows was positively Shakespearean compared to Burton and Depp’s inexplicably profitable vandalizing of Lewis Carroll’s classic, in which Depp contributes a cackling, blustering, and utterly insufferable performance as the Mad Hatter. It’s not that the character doesn’t call for some outrageousness; it’s that he’s all wrong for the role, which feels less like Depp playing to his strengths and more like he’s doing a third-rate Robin Williams imitation.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
But to get to the utter pits of the Burton/Depp trilogy from hell, you have to sit through Depp’s preening, self-indulgent, loathsome turn as Willy Wonka in their unwatchable adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s book. Depp reportedly created his Wonka from equal parts of Howard Hughes, game show hosts, and Anna Wintour — exactly the kind of batshittery that occurs when there’s not a real director around to tell an actor that his wacky ideas are insane. The result is easily Depp’s most skin-crawling piece of acting; you don’t have to be Gene Wilder to hate this one.