It was ten years ago when Johnny Depp began to lose his critical standing. As the lazy scribblers lacked the competence to observe and describe what he was doing, they accused him of being in a rut. But it was the critics who were incapable of writing anything but yesterday’s story that were in the rut. They had nothing to say about “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” so they they wrote that Depp was just doing the Pirates of the Caribbean in even more ridiculous costumes. His movies were slammed by frustrated critics who solved their problem of their incomprehension by feigning indifference to Depp’s achievements.
They had maligned Marlon Brando in much the same way. From 1962’s “Mutiny on the Bounty” to 1971’s “The Nightcomers,” much of his work was dismissed as eccentric and incomprehensible, when not merely ridiculous. Then he was welcomed back into the fold with a best actor Oscar for “The Godfather.” When Brando refused the award, Hollywood got really vicious. His brilliant turn as Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now” was kicked in the dirt, and the unforgettable cameos of his final years ridiculed.
When Depp and Brando got together to make “Don Juan de Marco” they proved to be one of the most charismatic teams in film history. But when Depp directed himself and Brando in “The Brave,” an accomplished and challenging tale of self sacrifice, it could not even find a US distributor.
Hollywood loves to shit on genius. Charles Chaplin was roundly rebuked for making “The Great Dictator” in 1940. Seven years later, he tried to reclaim their hearts with a sympathetic comedy about a murderer of rich widows, and they backed off even further. It was five years before he made his next picture, “LImelight,” his masterpiece of the sound era that was virtually unreleased in the states until 1972, when it was given an Oscar for Best Soundtrack, though otherwise unacclaimed. While exiled to England because of his unwillingness to testify in front of the House of Un-American Activities, he made one of his funniest movies, “A King in New York,” which went unreleased in the US until 1962. It was ten years after making “A King in New York” that he wrote and directed his final picture, “A Countess from Hong Kong,” which most of the world pretends does not exist.
In a directing career that spanned 36 years, Ralph Levy worked almost exclusively in television. His two theatrical features were Do Not Disturb (1965) and Bedtime Story (1964). Neither was very good, but both were decent romantic comedies and were moderately successful at the box office. On first glance, “A Countess from Hong Kong” isn’t much better than “Bedtime Story.” Most of the action is limited to a cabin suite on a cruise ship. The script is talky and pepped up with old-fashioned gags that keep Sophia Loren bouncing from one hiding place to another. But Marlon Brando does something that no other actor in a screwball comedy such as this has ever accomplished so well. He makes us believe in the transition in his feelings for Loren from contempt to love. He does this, in part, by playing his character as an unlikable cad in the first half, and gradually softens into a human being in the second. He is a person incapable of love until he gets to know, and becomes sympathetic to, the countess. In most screwball comedy, the man is a good guy who simply has no interest in the unwanted woman who plots to win his love. But Loren does not gain his love by plotting, but by being honest abut who she is. Also, in most of these films, the wife (or more often, the fiancée) is unsuited to the man and the arc of the story is his discovery of the obnoxious girl’s suitability. Here, the wife is perfectly suited to this tight assed politician. It is only when he is changed by the other woman that he realizes how hopeless his marriage is. This is all very subversive, but Chaplin’s genius for subversion really breaks through with Brando’s comeback to his wife after she has demeaned and degraded the countess by defining her in term of a past that was forced upon her by hostile forces. Sarcastically, he asks his wife what she would have done had she been in the other’s place. This was tantamount to calling a respectable woman lower than a whore, a grave insult at the time.
Truth to tell, Brando had been much funnier in “Bedtime Story.” Had “A Countess from Hong Kong” been a funnier and more conventional screwball comedy. I still don’t think it would have fulfilled the expectations of a new Chaplin film, especially among those who had never seen the old ones. And “Mortdecai,” under no conditions, could ever work as a Johnny Depp vehicle. Both pictures were just too old-fashioned to play well to the audiences that attended their initial runs. Billy Wilder had the same problems with “Avanti” and “Fedora.” Howard Hawks had the same problem with “Man’s Favorite Sport.” These are movies out of time. No matter how good or bad they might be, the audiences for them are gone.
“Mortdecai” might have been a decent vehicle for Jean Dujardin. At its best, it plays like one of his OSS 117 pictures. In fact, I would not be surprised if that was the kind of movie Depp had intended to make. It would explain his choice of director. David Koepp, whose previous film, “Premium Rush,” was a madcap chase through Manhattan on bicycles, has a zany rhythm and inventive ideas on how to traverse wide spaces that would, and on occasion did, work well for “Mordecai.” But his interior scenes were deadly, and they are what kill “Mordecai.” We go from these wild transitional spoofs into long expositional scenes that divide the cast into the ones who kill it even deader by taking things seriously, and Johnny Depp, all suited up and ready to roar, but finding himself on a lamb-strewn stage. Even those of us who loved him as Tonto in the unjustly maligned “Lone Ranger” can’t help but feel embarrassed for him when engaged in a nowhere scene with the all-too-sincere Gwyneth Paltrow. God, he must have hated her more than he did the wretched Faye Dunaway in “Arizona Dreams.”
The miraculous thing about “Mordecai” is that it improves in the second half. But it is too late for the jeering crowds who hated it from the beginning, when Depp’s absurd accent made it sound like the picture had been dubbed into Portuguese. The problem wasn’t Depp, but the movie that surrounded him like dirt from an archeological dig. Maybe if he played Clouseau in the next Pink Panther remake, the people around him would get the joke and join in the fun.