Strange as it may seem, there was once a time when Johnny Depp was already famous but couldn’t open a movie to save his life. Depending on how Transcendence does this weekend, that time may be coming back around for Mr. Depp, but before the Pirates of the Caribbean films made him a megastar, he was a lead actor of few hits and many misses, who indulged in artier projects far more frequently, and who once played hot gypsies in back-to-back films: first in Lasse Hallstrom’s 2000 Oscar nominee Chocolat, then in 2001 in Sally Potter’s The Man Who Cried (which is currently streaming on Netflix), one of Depp’s last truly strange efforts before he stepped into the boots of Captain Jack Sparrow.
The Man Who Cried amounted to a commercial effort for British director Sally Potter, a feminist performance artist who had worked as a composer and choreographer before moving into film in the ‘80s. Her most famous work remains the Tilda Swinton-starring Virginia Woolf adaptation Orlando, although her 2012 effort Ginger & Rosa attracted some recent raves. A “commercial effort” from Potter means a film that made $750,000 at the domestic box office and basically sank without a trace, but considering her oeuvre The Man Who Cried is a relatively straightforward film.
It concerns Susan (Christina Ricci), a Russian Jew who is shipped off to Britain after a 1927 pogrom and turns into a talented but shy singer who is curious about her unknown past. She goes to live in Paris with Lola (Cate Blanchett), a Russian dancer, and the two perform in a troupe that also sometimes includes Cesar (Depp), a handsome Romany performer on horseback. At some point, they’re all folded into an opera company headed by director Harry Dean Stanton and diva tenor Dante, played by John Turturro.
Some plot ensues, but not a whole lot, and what does transpire is extremely simplistic and clichéd. Lola falls for Dante’s money, if not his personality (he’s a bossy jerk who’s very fond of Mussolini), while Susan falls for Cesar and realizes the depth of her heritage. As happened to a lot of people of this era, the Nazis ruin everything by invading Paris. There’s a somewhat bizarre coda involving Susan’s father, who became a Hollywood mogul, but it’s hard to care too much because Ricci’s performance is so incredibly impassive. This is a very, very difficult film to connect to emotionally—a common problem for Potter, but even more of one as she tries to present a conventional narrative.
The cast is solid—Turturro excels at playing preening villains, and he does his part, although Salvatore Licitra, the tenor overdubbing his singing voice, does the most memorable work in the film. Blanchett collected a National Board of Review award for her work in this film, The Lord of the Rings and The Shipping News, which tells you something about how eclectic her career has always been (the imperious Lola feels like a cakewalk for Blanchett, who’s done the same shtick better in other projects). The story is easily dismissed, but the musical sequences, which are numerous and long, are extremely memorable and well-staged.
But what of Depp? He smolders effectively in his scenes, and while Potter’s rosy-eyed view of the gypsy life is somewhat simplistic, Depp is perfectly cast to represent its romanticism. But it’s such a clear marker for how adrift he was in his career at this point, even though he was coming off the very solid 1999 hit Sleepy Hollow (also starring Ricci!). After his terrific run of under-seen performances in the early to mid ‘90s (Gilbert Grape, Ed Wood, Don Juan de Marco, Dead Man, Donnie Brasco, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), Depp had nonetheless seriously dinged any commercial reputation he might have had, and was working to build it back. It’s important to remember what a risk Disney thought he represented for Pirates of the Caribbean.
Potter understands Depp’s presence and unique look, but uses him no better than The Astronaut’s Wife, The Ninth Gate, and Blow, other similarly ambitious but largely forgettable projects of the late ‘90s and early ‘00s that Depp trudged through before his last hot streak. While his eye for good blockbusters seems to be fading, maybe soon he can recapture the spirit of this earlier era when he took as many risks as possible and soldiered on, even when they didn’t pay off.