Last year, Johnny Depp played a pirate sailing the high seas. Here, as his next trick, he boards the good ship Mediocrity and navigates through an thriller-genre ocean of crap and coincidence, and I'll be damned if he doesn't breeze through without getting soiled. I can question his choice of material (as I often do), but I certainly can't complain that he's phoning it in.
Depp plays writer Mort Rainey (and if that isn't a sign of trouble, I don't know what is -- when was the last time you saw a good movie where the protagonist is named Mort?). Mort has many problems: he's divorcing his wife and none too happy about it, he's got writer's block, he lives off Mountain Dew and Doritos, his dog has cataracts and his ex is schtupping Timothy Hutton (which you know has to smart). Still, there's no wound so grievous that someone won't show up to squirt lemon juice in it, and the someone for that job is the improbably-named John Shooter. Shooter accuses Rainey of plagiarizing a short story some time ago, which might be a fair complaint if a) Rainey hadn't demonstrably written it first, b) Rainey hadn't meant it as a thinly-veiled murder fantasy aimed towards his then-wife, and c) if Rainey hadn't made the geography of the cabin in which he currently lives integral to the story. Still, something about Shooter's presence and the similarity of the stories spooks Rainey. So off Mort goes to try and find how he can placate this weirdo... and therein lies the film's faults.
It's not a bad premise, is it? Let this then stand as an object lesson in how to screw up a good idea. Ten minutes in, the film has set up its central conflict. It then proceeds to mosey along admiring flowers, periodically remembering that it's supposed to, you know, try and scare us or freak us out or something. And somewhere along the way, it tips its hand. Boy, does it ever. Writer/director David Koepp's last project was the David Fincher film "Panic Room" and he swipes some of Fincher's fancy camera tricks -- the opening, overly elaborate tracking shot leads us around a house, through a window, past a desk, down a flight of stairs and through
a mirror. However (and I'll try to be delicate with this), there's echoes of another movie in this film's DNA. It's based on a Stephen King novella, but the climax hums with familiarity for different reasons; appropriately, this tale of plagiarism feels second-hand. And it's not like the film is trying to be subtle about it, either. I mean, if you can't interpret the early blinking-neon signposts and figure out the destination here, you simply weren't paying much attention.
The ho-hum screenplay doesn't get much help from the parties not named Depp involved in its making, either. As I mentioned earlier, Koepp's direction occasionally exhibits a stylishness that by now can be bought at Goodwill for seven bucks. But then, when he's not pitching the camera around like a man who's seen too many Dario Argento movies, his eye is bland and faceless. His technical staff similarly exhibit a dogged professionalism that might as well have Xerox stamped on it. The nighttime shots and the denoument, in particular, seem stuck on Grim-O-Matic. As for the actors... well, you've got Maria Bello, who has never impressed me in any capacity. You've got John Turturro, who has dragged out his "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" shtick and superimposed "evil" on top of it. You've got Hutton, who proves yet again that he's about as intimidating as a Teletubby. And you've got Charles S. Dutton, who shows up and collects his money and goes home, much like he did in "Gothika" four months ago. So that means it's Depp's show the whole way. As usual, he doesn't disappoint; his portrayal of a man frustrated, scared and barely able to keep his anger in check is notable for the way that he gives us all these emotions with nothing more than narrowed eyes and a constantly sardonic tone of voice. Indeed, Mort's unwavering aggressive flippancy as put forth by Depp is indicative of another possible road this material could have taken, one more darkly humored and less generically "scary". Depp already seems like he's in on the joke, and it takes nearly 90 minutes for the rest of the film to catch up with him. I give the film credit, in fact, for following this silliness the whole way down into its corker of an epilogue. It could have been fun. Instead, it's one more Friday night out the window. Thanks for trying though, Johnny.