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''The Astronaut's Wife'' crashes and burns

Bruce Fretts wonders how much lower Johnny Depp can sink

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”The Astronaut’s Wife” crashes and burns

A few months ago in this column, I stirred up a bit of a fuss by declaring Anthony Hopkins ”the world’s most overrated actor.” Upon further reflection, I’d like to retract my remarks. In fact, I’ve come to realize that JOHNNY DEPP IS THE WORLD’S MOST OVERRATED ACTOR!

Depp’s howlingly awful turn in ”The Astronaut’s Wife” confirms what I’ve long suspected: This guy isn’t an actor, he’s a caricaturist. Too often he isolates one aspect of the person whom he’s playing and exaggerates it to the point of cartoonishness. In ”Wife,” he’s a space-shuttle pilot who starts acting bizarrely after briefly losing contact with Earth during a mission. The trouble is, this ”transformation” is invisible to the audience because Depp seems like the same sinister Southerner through the whole movie (a Dixie accent is Hollywood’s condescending tip-off that a character is evil, stupid, or both).

You can add this to Depp’s growing gallery of shallow work. His overpraised performance in ”Edward Scissorhands” mostly consisted of plaintive blinking. In ”Ed Wood,” he appeared to ape Jon Lovitz’s Master Thespian character from ”SNL,” overenunciating his words and embarrassing himself next to Martin Landau’s Oscar-winning Bela Lugosi. And he somehow managed to seem like an even bigger ham than Marlon Brando and Faye Dunaway in ”Don Juan DeMarco.”

How does Depp keep getting work? Even when he tries to make a commercial movie, like the plodding 1995 actioner ”Nick of Time,” he flails miserably. By all that is right, Depp should’ve met with the same career fate as his onetime ”21 Jump Street” costar, Richard Grieco, and be making direct-to-video erotic thrillers by now.

Depp’s staying power comes courtesy of directors John Waters and Tim Burton. As a typically perverse joke, Waters cast the teen-mag pinup in his 1990 spoof, ”Cry-Baby,” and suddenly Depp was hip by association. Burton cemented the actor’s undeserved reputation by giving him the title roles in ”Edward” and ”Ed,” and he’ll soon be seen as Ichabod Crane in the filmmaker’s ”Sleepy Hollow.” Now he’s viewed as a maverick, when most of his films are unwatchable (”Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”) or unreleasable (Depp’s 1997 directorial debut, ”The Brave,” costarring Brando, never found a U.S. distributor).

The sad thing is Depp is capable of giving a good performance. Yet his strong, subtle emoting in ”Donnie Brasco” and ”What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” was overwhelmed by the skillful showiness of costars Al Pacino and Leonardo DiCaprio, so he seems to have settled back into his old bizarre-is-better ways. A few more cinematic stinkbombs like ”The Astronaut’s Wife,” however, and Depp could find himself losing parts to his younger doppelgänger, Skeet Ulrich.