June 08, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

It can be hilarious to see an actor spectacularly miscast. (Remember Richard Gere in ”King David?” Marisa Tomei in ”The Perez Family?”) Yet it can also be ticklish and revealing, an invitation to meditate on who that actor is and why a particular role has resulted in his or her looking like the victim of a mutant personality transplant. I sat through The Man Who Cried, an unintentionally wacked historical suds opera directed by Sally Potter, without ever quite figuring out who ”the man” is or why, exactly, he happened to cry. But that’s perfectly okay, since I was kept more than occupied by one of the most fearless arrays of loony-tunes casting choices since Bruce Willis played an uptight psychologist romancing wallflower dangereuse Jane March in ”Color of Night.”

A showcase of future resume embarrassments, ”The Man Who Cried” features Christina Ricci trying to pass off her couch-potato carriage and disaffected stare of ”Whatever!” blankness as the secret fear and anguish of a wandering Jew at the dawn of World War II; John Turturro flashing his guileless gawk-smile as a very, very famous Italian opera singer; and Johnny Depp playing — yet again — a monosyllabic designer gypsy with a Euro-suave dialect so generic that you’d swear you were watching a recurring ”Saturday Night Live” character to put alongside Christopher Walken’s champanya-guzzling Continental. Ironically, in the midst of all this high-caloric camp, the one performer who escapes with her dignity, Cate Blanchett, does so not by underacting but by getting in full shameless touch with her miscast inner ham. As Lola, a transplanted Moscow gold digger with a borscht-thick accent and lips as glossy red as the inside of a chocolate-covered cherry, Blanchett is like Mata Hari played by Gwen Stefani impersonating Veronica Lake. It’s hard to take your eyes off of acting this knowingly overripe.

A romantic quadrangle set against the Nazi invasion of Paris, ”The Man Who Cried” has so much more ambition than chops (or budget) that it suggests a historical epic shot on a ’50s B-movie backlot. Potter, who is best known for orchestrating the freeze-dried feminism of ”Orlando,” creates pungent images (snow falling on spruce trees, Johnny Depp parading a white stallion), but she’s clueless when it comes to arranging them in dramatic flow. It doesn’t help that Ricci, the most remote performer here, is playing the nominal heroine. Her Suzie, who bounces from a Russian shtetl to England to Paris in pursuit of her long-lost father, is meant to be torn apart by her quest for Home, but Ricci, with her owl-eyed calm, looks like she’d rather be playing videogames. When she falls in love with Depp’s gypsy, her blah passivity and his near-mute narcissism all but cancel each other out. There’s only one performer in the movie who looks completely at ease with what he’s doing: the horse.

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