Johnny Depp drops Jack Sparrow wig for Whitey Bulger bald cap, results are ehhh in ‘Black Mass’
“Black Mass” exists mostly because Johnny Depp wants to remind us he’s an actor. “Black Mass” is his way of saying, “Hey! I’m more than just some kinder-goth totem silkscreened on the back of a Hot Topic hoodie in 2009! I’m a thespian!” And he’s not wrong.
Johnny Depp is a thespian, or was at any rate. Now he’s just that guy from “Mortdecai” who looks like he crawled inside the dumpster behind American Apparel and decided to wear everything he found in it all at once. Which is exactly why “Black Mass” was so highly anticipated. For the first time in a long time, Depp seemed to have removed the Jack Sparrow wig that lay hidden under the mound of scarves and trilbies that envelop his body in order to play a person. Not a giant bottle of liquid eyeliner that talks like Hunter S. Thompson for whatever reason, but an actual person; a real human being.
Unfortunately, in “Black Mass” that isn’t the case. As Whitey Bulger, Depp tones down his more egregious acting tics but still manages to portray the South Boston crime lord as an outsized cartoon. With his unconvincing bald cap, distracting blue contacts and ever-present pleather jacket, Depp’s Bulger resembles Nosferatu if he played Fonzie on “Happy Days.”
But Depp isn’t the only disappointment in “Black Mass.”
The film itself is a fragmentary shrug and would be inessential even if “The Departed” didn’t exist.
Speaking of “The Departed,” it ghost rattles its chains and haunts every frame of “Black Mass.” “Ooo! Jack Nicholson’s Bulger was soo muuch beetter,” it wails. “Aaaah! Why does eeevery scene loook like director Scott Cooper left the cameeera running as heee stepped outside for some smoookes?” screeches the tormented soul of “The Departed.”
Related through a series of flashbacks as recounted by former low-level associates of Bulger as they turn state’s evidence, “Black Mass” is aiming for the epic scope of “Goodfellas” but lacks that film’s emotional pull or sense of humor.
Instead, it’s static and inert even though it has no reason to be that way. How exactly does a story about Bulger dodging prison time because he was recruited by FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) to act as an informant against the Italian Mafia become uninteresting? And understand this story includes Bulger’s bloody rise up the ladder in the (apparently) high stakes world of professional Jai Alai as well as Bulger’s short lived involvement with the IRA. Yet this story plods along with the grim blandness of a cable-ready police procedural.
The main problem lies in the fact that the FBI is never a credible threat to Bulger. Connolly, who as played by Edgerton is a Joe Pesci character filtered through a Bugs Bunny cartoon, is portrayed as a sweaty, grasping, idiot and yet he’s able to repeatedly sell his fellow agents on the viability of Bulger even as the infamous kingpin is murdering people in broad daylight in a parking lot. Bulger is never depicted as anything less than a monster. There’s no nuance to Depp’s performance nor in the way the character was written; he’s pure evil and nothing less. The scene where Bulger is lying on his back with his arms crossed on his chest like Dracula in his coffin is infinitely dumber than the obvious symbolism of the rat on the windowsill at the end of “The Departed.”
If you can overlook the uninteresting storyline, the ‘awkwahd Bawston axents’ and the atrocious wigwork, “Black Mass” does function as a sort of “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World” for character actors. Kevin Bacon, Juno Temple, Jesse Plemons, Julianne Nicholson and more all pop up in supporting roles.
Half the fun is wondering who’ll appear next. Will it be Adam Scott in an aggressively ’70s pencil-stache? Oh, I can’t say. But what I can tell you is “Black Mass” is so achingly generic it feels like it was adapted from an unfinished page from a book of Mob Movie Madlibs where the only space someone filled in was the one that read, “Name a Boston Location.”
At least “Mortdecai” wasn’t forgettable.
Mike Sullivan is a movie reviewer for Weekender. Movie reviews appear weekly in Weekender.
Starring: Johnny Depp, Benedict Cumberbatch and Joel Edgerton
Director: Scott Cooper
Weekender Rating: WW