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Depp Makes "Secret Window" a Non-Guilty Pleasure: Also, "Spartan" and "21 Grams" PDF Print E-mail
Movies - Reviews
Written by Mike Schulz   
Tuesday, 23 March 2004 18:00

Johnny Depp in Secret WindowSECRET WINDOW

Even though the movie isn’t all that good, Secret Window is one of those thrillers that you want to watch again immediately after your first viewing. But unlike, say, The Sixth Sense or Fight Club, where you’re curious to see exactly how The Twist was pulled off, your desire to return to this Stephen King adaptation is based solely on one thing: the performance of Johnny Depp.

Depp is almost unbelievably clever in Secret Window. Playing a blocked writer who might or might not be going completely insane, he has the wit to make his portrayal more and more hilarious as the movie is – supposedly – growing scarier and scarier. (Depp pulls off the performance that Nicholson couldn’t in Kubrick’s The Shining.) Like his rapidly-becoming-legendary Jack Sparrow, there’s true joy in his work here; Depp has clearly thought out his character arc so fully that you want to see the movie again simply to revel in how smart, how inspired, his acting choices were throughout. The movie isn’t worth much, and it’s easy to see why so many are leaving the film disappointed – as a work that’s meant to scare you, the movie is a botch – yet Johnny Depp is so freaking funny in it that you can enjoy the film almost completely free of guilt.

He plays Mort Rainey, a novelist who retreats to a lakeside cabin after catching his wife (Maria Bello) in the arms of another man (Timothy Hutton). Enter John Shooter (John Turturro, doing an amusing riff on his O Brother, Where Art Thou? caricature), a drawling Southerner who claims that, years ago, Rainey published one of Shooter’s stories under his own name, and who wants Rainey to make immediate reparations. Shooter seems, at first, like a generic wacko – Annie Wilkes in redneck drag – yet after learning that Rainey previously admitted to an act of plagiarism, we, along with a very confused Rainey, begin to wonder if Shooter’s tale is true. Adapting King’s novella, writer/director David Koepp can’t do much to make this story intriguing; King has, by now, used this sort of scenario in so many different stories, and with so little variety, that you can practically hear the wheels of the plot grinding along to the inevitable “surprise” ending that’s no surprise at all. (Secret Window is by no means the embarrassment that last spring’s Dreamcatcher was, but it, too, is a fine argument for King’s retirement from fiction.) The film would barely be worth discussing if it weren’t for Depp. Sporting a tattered robe and perhaps the most hysterical mop of bed-head in the history of movies, Depp turns a tired King stereotype into a uniquely nutty creation; I can’t think of another portrayal in a horror film that had me – intentionally – laughing out loud with such frequency. Secret Window might not be the edgy thriller the ads promise, but Depp often makes it a hell of an entertaining comedy.

 

Val Kilmer and Derek Luke in SpartanSPARTAN

It takes a particular acting style to pull off David Mamet. Like Shakespeare, the rhythms of Mamet are so instantly recognizable yet so stylized – the rat-a-tat line delivery, the cryptic, fragmented sentence structure – that a lot of normally good performers can’t fake their way through him. (Mamet is like Shakespeare if every other word was “fuck.”) Because his dialogue is so intentionally flat and terse, to fail at Mamet is to risk looking like a really bad actor, and his chief skill as a film director has been getting performers as stylistically varied as Gene Hackman, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Steve Martin to act as though they’d been performing Mamet all their lives. His newest film, Spartan, is another of Mamet’s twisty cinematic puzzles, this time revolving around the kidnapping and enslavement of the president’s daughter, and it’s as complex and labyrinthine – and vaguely ridiculous – as we’d expect from the creator of House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner. Yet despite some clever touches, the movie is a dreary, uninvolving mess, mostly because lead Val Kilmer doesn’t seem to know what to do with Mamet’s dialogue, and Mamet, it appears, doesn’t know what to do with Kilmer. Val Kilmer in Spartan is the antithesis of Johnny Depp in Secret Window: He gives a totally joyless performance. Reciting Mamet’s lines in a somnolent monotone and unwilling to muster even one facial expression apart from a half-awake deadpan, Kilmer gives a depressingly unmotivated performance, and he robs Spartan of all momentum; you could easily nod off during his lengthier scenes. Kilmer is especially poor when you compare him to Mamet vets William H. Macy and Ed O’Neill, who have minor roles here; it’s the sort of movie that has you rooting for the bad guys simply because they’re more fun to listen to. Usually, it requires a pretty substantial suspension-of-disbelief to enjoy a Mamet film – his convoluted plots tend to fall apart upon close examination – but to make it through Spartan, you first have to buy that Val Kilmer is playing anything resembling a human being, and I’m not sure it can be done.

 

Naomi Watts in 21 Grams21 GRAMS

21 Grams is an absolute triumph of style over substance, a piece of beautifully directed, passionately acted drivel. If director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and stars Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, and Benicio Del Toro weren’t all working at peak ability, the movie would fall apart completely; Inarritu and his cast make everything about 21 Grams feel emotionally true, even though you don’t necessarily believe a moment of it. The script, by Guillermo Arriaga, is tightly constructed yet almost unbearably contrived: A college professor (Penn), seeking a heart transplant, finds a donor in the late husband of a reformed junkie (Watts). The husband was killed – along with their two young daughters – in an accident involving an ex-con (Del Toro). The professor seeks out the ex-junkie, they fall in love, and they make plans to kill the ex-con. How, you might wonder, can this material play as anything other than ludicrous soap opera? Yet what’s astonishing about 21 Grams is that, while you’re watching it, all of the script’s contrivances and borderline embarrassments melt away; saying that Inarritu and company transcend their material is a total understatement. Employing a time-fractured chronology that turns what could have been clichéd domestic scenes into breathtaking snapshots of lives in forward and backward motion, Inarritu provides 21 Grams with both a haunting subtlety and a scarring emotionalism, and the performances he elicits are superb – Penn acts with heartbreaking honesty, Del Toro reminds us for the first time since Traffic what a powerful, soulful actor he can be, and Watts is, quite simply, extraordinary. 21 Grams was just released on DVD and video, but catch it instead while it’s still playing at the Brew & View; Inarritu and his cast’s effort deserve a scale as large as their talents.

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