The Depp of Despair

On Bob Yates’s last day at the Mighty 1220, he read the following review by Rex Reed. Nobody can rip up a movie so brilliantly than Mr. Reed. I think you will agree.

I didn’t think I could see a worse movie this year than Elizabethtown. I was wrong. I have now suffered through the agonies of a toxic disaster called The Libertine. This tub of swill would be repellent under any circumstances, but the added horror of Johnny Depp staggering through the brothels of 17th-century London with an accent so phony it’s hilarious, covered with oozing sores and mumbling archaic filth in what sounds like iambic pentameter while dying of syphilis, is not my idea of holiday entertainment.
Why this junk pile of lunkheaded pretentiousness was made in the first place—or for what audience it’s intended—will remain among the century’s unsolved mysteries. But perhaps some background is required before you read on: In 1996, Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company performed The Libertine, a dreadful play by Stephen Jeffreys that starred John Malkovich in the leading role of the scandalously depraved John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester. When deadly pretentious obsession rears its ugly head, Mr. Malkovich is very often found chasing its ambulance. It was 10 years before he managed to produce this load of scrap for the screen, adapted by the playwright, ineptly directed by first-time amateur Laurence Dunmore, a graphic designer turned commercial director, with the hopelessly and tragically miscast Johnny Depp in the starring role. (Mr. Malkovich whines his way through a lampoon of King Charles II.) They should all be fried in pig fat.
Here are the gritty, stinking, steaming bowels of mid-17th-century London two centuries before Queen Victoria and the Industrial Revolution, a hell of rotten cabbage, horse urine and human debauchery in the imagination of an overzealous set designer that makes Sweeney Todd look like a vacation in Ocho Rios. It is 1660. Charles II has been restored to the throne to begin a new era of sexual perversion and bad plays. Enter Johnny Depp as “Johnny,” the court’s amusing part-time actor and writer of pornographic sonnets, and full-time bisexual outlaw, who tells the audience: “You will not like me.” He’s right. He prances and whinnies like a wounded stag, reciting poems about his “flaccid member rising to action”; when the king requires his presence, he says, “Freeze my piss if the royal finger ain’t beckoning me.” Samantha Morton is Mrs. Lizzie Barry, a bad actress he decides to train onstage and in bed. And Mr. Malkovich, posing and posturing in Maria Montez wigs, talking lugubrious nonsense in Vincent Price’s old voice, is a king who acts more like a queen. Commissioning “Johnny” Wilmot to write a play for the visiting French ambassador, he finds himself and his guests outraged by an orgy scene played by talking dildos. In his best moment, Mr. Malkovich stares down his victim, flares his Susan Hayward nostrils, and tells Wilmot: “I was going to send you to the Tower. I was going to put your head on a spike. But I’ve decided on something worse. I’m condemning you to be you—for the rest of your life!” Banished from London, slogging through pig-infested mud and depressed beyond measure, Wilmot dedicates the rest of his life to total debauchery, destroying his wife and all of his whores, drinking himself into the final stages of venereal disease, his face covered with pus and sores, his teeth rotted to black stubs, his blind eyes glazed with what his makeup man clearly intends to be a cadaverous state but what actually looks like white contact lenses.
As an actor, Johnny Depp coasts along on instinct, with no knowledge of his own limitations. But as a bankable personality, you gotta give him credit for fearlessness. I mean, he’ll do anything! In a deathbed cry of remorse, he writes one more speech that saves the monarchy, but it’s too late. He’s 33 years old, and his nose falls off. The film is bathed in a low-level candlelight that is supposed to give it both a period feel and a dark, brooding atmosphere. Instead, it all looks photographed through dirt.
This is the kind of self-indulgence actors crave, and another of those gruesome movies about libertines (de Sade, Casanova & Co.) that have always been flops. No reason why this one should be any different. It gets the filth and the decadence right, but forgets to tell a story. These are worthless people who neither do nor say anything to make you give one fig about them, and since the movie has no plot, there is nothing to sustain interest for two hours of tedium. Great chunks of it are completely incomprehensible because the actors are so inarticulate. Arch and superficial as it is, the dialogue is rendered as pointless as the rest of the movie. It’s bathed in a low-voltage candlelight that is supposed to give it a period feel and a dark, brooding atmosphere, but instead it just looks like they ran out of money and couldn’t pay the electric bill. Everything about this lumbering bore backfires. The Libertine is a rancid brew of fetid and noxious nothingness.

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