March 16, 2006

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The Libertine (R)
reviewed by Amy Diaz

Johnny Depp dons the puffy shirt and the flowy wig once again but this time to play dark and serious in the dingy The Libertine, the tale of the debauched second earl of Rochester.

John Wilmot (Depp) was the Maureen Dowd of Charles II’s Restoration-era court (with almost the same taste in makeup and heels). He was, as shown here at least, anti-monarchy, sorta, in the same way that most punk bands are antiestablishment but perfectly willing to do an iPod ad if someone hands them a check. John (Johnny as his pals, the theater-types, called him) scoffed at the monarchy but didn’t so much mind using his stature as a means to play at all sorts of indulgences (the usual — sex, drink, smart-aleckiness to power, laziness plus a serious tendency toward theater-geekness). In the opening scene, he looks directly into the camera and tells us we won’t like him though we might admire his ability to seduce both sexes and be loud and obnoxious. Actually, Rochester says all of this with a lot more flourish but I lost interest in the monologue, being as it was long and wordy and so teenage-defiant that it almost seemed like a parody of itself. He makes a lot of boasts about being a great wit and a great seducer though we then plunge into two hours of his life and see not much of either.

We do, however, get to watch him look increasingly scuzzier as the 17th-century version of the bar life starts to take its toll. Though married, Rochester tends to leave his wife behind when he travels to London to whore around, drink too much and spend too much time at the theater or hanging out with the theater crowd being clever. King Charles (John Malkovich), desperate to shore up the monarchy, wants Rochester to grow up and be his Shakespeare. But Rochester’s not having any and instead takes as his serious project helping a young actress (Samantha Morton) find a way to break free of the one-note performances typical on the London stages and give audiences something with more nuance and complexity.

Though helping his protégée become a success, Rochester can’t seem to help himself. He falls out of Charles’ favor, his syphilis gets worse and he ends up hacking on a bed, noseless, while a priest tries to interest him in the benefits of deathbed conversion.

Forget liking or disliking — an audience can adore a despicable character or pay rapt attention to one it dislikes — Depp here is mostly just uninteresting. It’s as though he himself is bored by his stagy dialogue and unimpressed by the big talk of badness that never really plays out. Just as Depp’s looneyness is infectious and can make a movie more enjoyable than it should be (Pirates of the Caribbean was not entertaining because of its great quality), his loathing can turn lackluster into downright depressing. C-


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