Depp plumbs new depths in 'The Libertine'

Critics' Picks : New Dvds

July 02, 2006|By MICHAEL SRAGOW

THE LIBERTINE / / The Weinstein Co. / / $28.95

Johnny Depp's roster of indelible portraits could fill both a rogues' gallery and a hall of fame. He can do a Keith Richards-like buccaneer in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies (the second comes out Friday) and a conscience-ravaged FBI agent in Donnie Brasco with equal conviction and invention. But in his most death-defying leap yet -- from the everlastingly boyish playwright J.M. Barrie of Finding Neverland to the terminally wasted playwright John Wilmot of The Libertine (filmed back to back, in 2003 and 2004) -- he crashes to earth with a sickening thud. He brings neither debauched grace nor lucidity to Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester and King Charles II's sometime-ally in the House of Lords.

Director Laurence Dunmore and playwright / screenwriter Stephen Jeffreys depict Wilmot as a man who can experience emotion only in the theater. In isolated moments, Depp shows the amazing things he can do with that conception. He sets off electric rhythms with the intense Samantha Morton as Elizabeth Barry, a fledgling actress. Depp and Morton bring all the tension and clarity of an aesthetic Apache dance to the scenes of Wilmot releasing Barry's ardor and fury.

Sadly, the moviemakers embed them in a tapestry so drearily dissolute it recalls Tinto Brass' Caligula (1980). And they lose the thread of Wilmot's character. He becomes a man whose sole impetus is to go beyond all limits. Of course, that's why John Wilmot would appeal to Johnny Depp: As an actor, he wants to scale or breach all boundaries, including those of temperament and physique. But by the end of The Libertine, you're watching only to see how far Wilmot's pustules will spread, or whether his various diseases will really make his nose fall off.

* Special features: Die-hard Depp fans may still want to rent the DVD, strictly because of the extras. The deleted scenes suggest that the final editing undercut Depp's performance. A best friend's solemn oath to report back from the afterlife, followed by his horrific death in battle, would have helped explain Wilmot's cosmic disillusion and dissolution. In a making-of documentary, Depp displays an empathy so complete he expresses it offhand and colloquially, referring to Wilmot's drinking as "self-medication," not "fun." Depp says that understanding Wilmot's degeneration led him to give a performance that he hoped would register as "a love letter" to an antihero.

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THE MATADOR / / The Weinstein Co. / / $28.95

In The Matador's making-of documentary, Pierce Brosnan describes this black-comic buddy movie as another loss-of-faith tale. But the faith, in this case, is a hitman's in his own cold-blooded skill. Writer / director Richard Shepard keeps the characters amusing and the action colorful. Too bad the only difference between The Matador and more conventional odd-couple movies is that one of the buddies stays married. It hinges on a chance meeting at a Mexico City hotel bar between an assassin who is scraping psychic bottom (Brosnan) and a Denver businessman (Greg Kinnear) who's about to strike it rich or do the same. "Just consider me the best cocktail party story you ever met," says Brosnan, and that just about sums everything up. Brosnan plunges into the depiction of a hired killer gone haywire with appealing self-satire and gusto. But you can balance all the content and imagination in this movie on the tip of a bullet. The best scene comes when Brosnan shows up at Kinnear's Colorado home. The husband smiles woozily as his smart, mischievous wife (Hope Davis, who never disappoints) sizes up the mystery man and dances with the devil.

[MICHAEL SRAGOW]

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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