Chocolatey Goodness, With a Creepy Center
By Fernando F. Croce

In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Johnny Depp seems ready to play Howard Hughes. Not the vanilla, Aviator DiCaprio go-getter, but the old guy shacked up in Las Vegas with his bottled piss. Depp doesn't do anything as outré here (it's a family movie, at least nominally), but as Willy Wonka in Tim Burton's malicious version of Roald Dahl's beloved 1964 kiddie book, he delivers his woolliest, flakiest performance since his Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Where Gene Wilder in the kitschy 1971 movie adaptation milked the character for fey cabaret cuddliness, with hysteria just an inch below the surface, Depp's Wonka is full-on Brando-wacky, chalky-white face framed by a floppy, dark-reddish bob, Oscar Wilde top-hat and '70s glam-rock velvet coat. Indeed, the purple rubber gloves and the alarming rows of grinning teeth would not be out of place at a Ziggy Stardust concert, but it was Marilyn Manson, not Bowie, who might have been considered along the project genesis -- in any case, Depp makes Wonka the creepy center of the chocolatey concoction, stunted with a Freudian wagonload but still gleefully breaking into private jigs, a forlorn child even while looking like a hermaphrodite from outer space.

Another in the long line of Burton outsiders, then, this time almost bridging the gap between the benevolent naïfs of Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood and the outright grotesques of the Batman movies. Depp and his Finding Neverland young co-star, the gifted Freddie Highmore, share a warm, uncondescending intergenerational bond, yet Burton, American cinema's inestimable goth-prankster, must have relished the inevitable overtones from that other notorious, heavily publicized Peter Pan. Highmore is Charlie, of course, eking out a humble, good-hearted life with his poor parents (Helena Bonham Carter, Noah Taylor) and grandparents, until luck strikes and he finds a golden ticket in a Willy Wonka chocolate bar, his admission into the legendary candy man's factory for a day-long tour, alongside his beloved Grandpa Joe (David Kelly). Sugary wonders sprout from room to room, cocoa-stirring waterfalls and Carroll mushrooms full of marshmallow, though things here can go from sweet to sinister in a heartbeat, the better to teach the other beastly children touring the premises. Fans of Dahl's story still savor the brats' comeuppances, and Burton orchestrates each with mischievous joy -- rotund Augustus Gloop (Philip Wiegratz) ends up sucked up a tube after falling into the fudge pond, little daddy's-girl Veruca Salt (Julia Winter) is swarmed by an army of nutty squirrels, gum-chewing Violet Beauregarde (Annasophia Robb) swells into a bolder-sized blueberry, while video-game nut Mike Teavee (Jordon Fry) is miniaturized and sent to the Taffy Room.

Each elimination is scored to a musical interlude (Busby Berkeley, Bollywood, and Flower Child rock are some of the styles), arranged by the invaluable Danny Elfman and performed by knee-high Oompa-Loompas, deadpan Deep Roy digitalized into a whole tribe. Still, despite the massive CGI work, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory maintains the heartfelt, nearly handmade feel Burton brings to even his mega-budgeted works, the puckish edge of the individualized artist molding immense Hollywood projects into personal visual-emotional experiences. For all the PG-busting weirdness, however, Burton's film is a much less sinister journey than the earlier version, not so much due to toned-down freakouts (the boat ride, a malefic acid trip in the 1971 movie, becomes a benignly psychedelic aqua-rollercoaster here) as to the fleshing out of Wonka. Turns out a severe, candy-free childhood (dentist dad Christopher Lee allowed no sugar, only tons of Inquisition-looking dental contraptions) lurks behind his chocolate obsession and his inability to utter the word "parents" -- critics are already deploring the addition of this family backstory, writing it off as faux-Spielberg the same way they patronized Burton's previous Big Fish as a simple acceptance of paternal lies, rather than a meditation on life, death, and filmmaking. Yet this emotional side is no less powerful a pull to the filmmaker as his trademark "dark" impulses, and the sweet-sour blur, freakishness found in normalcy and a fondness for oddness, lies at the soul of the film, and of Burton's art. Sweet.

*

If the Burton-Depp work is a collaboration of director and actor, Wedding Crashers falls in the actor-auteur slot. Or, more precisely, actors-auteur -- namely, the Frat Pack, the new millennium's hipster-jester batch boasting in its corner Luke and Owen Wilson, Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, and Will Ferrell, to say nothing of most recent comedy hits (Old School, Starsky and Hutch, Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story and Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy). This round the torch-bearers are machine gun-mouthed shark Vaughn and smash-nosed smarm-poodle Owen Wilson, who carry on the Pack's frat-house carousing as well as the buried subtextual baggage: Vaughn goes the full traumatizing route, package rubbed near climax under a dinner table, before he's pummeled on a game of touch football, bound and gagged to his bed by both a peppery brat and her brooding artiste brother, and hit with an assfull of buckshot. (Wilson, by contrast, just gets to feel up Jane Seymour's tits.) Happily MOA is another Frat Pack thematic motif, jokey homoeroticism, with the guys sharing brotherly bonds as they hone their fake-sensitivity skills just in time for matrimonial season, going from wedding to wedding in search of free booze, hors d'oeuvres and, above all, horny bridesmaids.

The director in a Frat Pack film is utterly irrelevant -- Todd Phillips in Old School and Starsky and Hutch may be the ablest wrangler, and David Dobkin here gets a nice, orgasmic-montage effect set to the Isley Brothers' "Shout" early on, but ultimately the focus remains squarely on the scalawag-heroes and the lothario-redemption routine as they infiltrate the "Kentucky Derby of weddings," the nuptial ceremonies lorded over by the Secretary of the Treasury (Christopher Walken, who else?). Wilson becomes so smitten with maid of honor Rachel McAdams that he manages to lasso a weekend in her WASP family's palatial estate, bad news for Vaughn, who wants nothing more to do with "clinger" Isla Fisher, McAdams' younger sister and, after their beachfront quickie following the reception, a raging nympho. Anyone who's seen Meet the Parents will quickly connect the dots and place McAdams' asshole fiancé (Bradley Cooper) safely out of the equation; despite a late-in-the-game appearance by Will Ferrell, yelling his Ferrell yells in crimson robes, the effervescence level dips on its way to its altar climax. Still, Vaughn and Wilson by now have turned smart-ass ad-libbing into carnival sharpshooting, bulletlike line-readings never missing. "True love is finding the soul's counterpoint in another" is Wilson's pick-up line to McAdams, though, comedically at least, he could be talking to Vaughn.


Reviewed July 21, 2005.

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