Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Mar 14, 2004 6:28 pm 
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Hair-raising tale

I'm going to reveal a secret right away.

Who's the REAL star of the new movie, Secret Window? (PICK ONE.)

A. Johnny Depp, John Turturro, Maria Bello, Timothy Hutton, Charles S. Dutton.

B. Stephen King.

C. Johnny Depp's hair.

CORRECT: The answer is C, the hair.

(I won't tell you about the window, though.)

Johnny has always had a lot of hair -- big hair, pretty hair, bad hair, hair. But this is the first time his hair has starred in a movie. Yes, Depp himself is there, wearing a nice big pair of retro eyeglasses and a small wardrobe of shabby chic clothes, and it's Depp's casual ease – yea, even as an overwrought crazed novelist – that makes this a toney production and conceivably worth watching (if only to pass the time). But it's the hair that carries the day.

Frankly, even the lady waiting behind the line with me at the Cineplex loves Johnny Depp; his fans are legion, and are now declaring their desire to lie in his couch in the country with him and share his Doritos and ciggies.

But does that make this a good movie? No, it does not. It's a movie of some charm and smoothness, with Depp wearing his role like an old shoe, a nifty Philip Glass score, a good supporting cast, and the hair. It's only as time wears on that you realize the hair is character hair, not just Johnny Depp hair. That is, it's his hair, alright, but it's been teased and tortured to look like the hair of a reclusive slothful neurotic nutter of a crime writer who's in the slough of despond over a failed marriage and is pretty soon going to go off the deep end. It's only after he's gone completely wacko and killed a bunch of people that the hair settles down and becomes smooth, relatively normal Johnny Depp hair. The wardrobe department is no slouch and so the glasses change too.

This story is a cookie-cutter Stephen King job, and David Koepp deserves some credit for breathing life and a bit of class into yet another fevered dream about a neurotic writer with an unfaithful wife and too many personalities living in the country back east among a bunch of local yokels.

Things go a little wrong right away though, if you're looking for willing suspension of disbelief and not just a cosy couple of hours with the charismatic star, when Depp, as Mort Rainey (hard to see Johnny as a `Mort,' but he's just slumming -- chicly -- in this flick), opens the door and there is John Turturro with a very bad southern redneck accent claiming `Yew stole ma stowrie!' Mort has been separated from his wife (Maria Bello) for six months, having discovered her in a motel bed with Tim Hutton, whose Tennessee accent is much lighter and more tasteful than Turturro's. Is it because Turturro is Italian or because he's a figment of Mort's imagination that his accent is so bad? You guess. This redneck character, who's called John Shooter, wants only for Mort to change the ending of the story. He doesn't say how. In fact it's not quite clear what he wants done at first and the two men get into a wrangle over whether the claim is true or not. Mort says he can prove he published the story in a magazine before John Shooter wrote his. Meanwhile for no special reason, maybe to heat up the plot, Shooter starts doing menacing and eventually felonious and finally murderous and crazy things. First the cute little old half blind dog winds up stabbed with a screwdriver. Next Mort's big house where his wife now lives burns to the ground. Then two men are dead in a car, one of them hired to protect Mort, the other a friendly local.

There are scenes where Mort has to deal with his still friendly wife and the tiresome new boyfriend and a lawyer who's trying to get Mort to sign the divorce papers. There are scenes with Charles S. Dutton, the hired bodyguard. And there are, toward the end, scenes where we watch not one but two and then three identically dressed casual chic Johnny Depps with superwild hair talking to each other. It's then that we're in the best company. Philip Kaufman eat your heart out.

This Stephen King story is obvious in every way, though the ending – the way the story has to be changed – isn't anything that becomes obvious till it has happened, which is one way of saying King knows his job. Depp looks like walking through his part for the fun of it, sleeping through it, you might say. But the man is such a good actor he's reasonably convincing and certainly a pleasure to watch throughout. There's something not a little Hitchcockian about his innocent-betrayed role. Imagine if Jimmy Stewart took Tony Perkin's part in Psycho and you have some idea of Depp in Secret Window. It's not the unreeling of the plot but Depp's little bits of business -- his struggle trying not to smoke, the way he shakes the phone receiver when his wife makes him mad at the other end, a convincing nervous tick of widening the mouth – that provide most of the fun, as does Turturro's patent deadpan fakery. But the material, no matter how classily delivered, somehow remains impossible to take seriously. And the other actors have too little to do: for that matter, it's all done by Depp’s hair. The director, Mr. Koepp, has plenty of TV and adaptation writing experience, but he's a bit of a novice as a director of full length movies.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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