A blocked writer, visited by a genie who offers a choice between increased productivity and looking as raggedy-cool in perpetual creative funk as Johnny Depp does in Secret Window, might think hard before giving his final answer. In writer-director David Koepp’s adaptation of the novella ”Secret Window,” ”Secret Garden,” Stephen King’s zillionth story about a writer going slowly King Krazy in a bucolic setting, the suave chameleon who so recently modeled a do-rag and eyeliner as a pickled pirate now wears a threadbare schmatte of a bathrobe, poet-circa-1965 eyeglasses, and a luxuriously matted bob of gilded, bed-head hair to play Mort Rainey, afflicted scribbler. This, the actor has decided, is what horror nuttiness looks like when the actor who’s playing the nut would look hip even in a straitjacket, and dammit if Depp doesn’t pull off the whole layers-by-Betsey-Johnson look. In a Deppish universe where actorly joie de vivre is liable to turn into sly cheekiness at the slightest provocation, the star makes even the act of chowing down on a bag of Doritos look like a Method exercise gone merrily askew.
If only there were more provocation to the sawed-off story itself! Rainey is sleeping – his principal activity now that his soon-to-be-ex-wife (Maria Bello) has taken up with a square suburbanite (Timothy Hutton) – when a stranger thumps on the door of his woodsy waterside retreat. ”Yew stole mah storeee,” the man who calls himself John Shooter declares, the drawl of Mississippi pulled into a taffy of lazy vowels by the always-game-to-go-overboard John Turturro. Shooter’s accusation, that years ago Rainey plagiarized a short story called ”Secret Window,” is followed by a demand for justice. And from then on the pop-eyed hick hounds his quarry with a single-mindedness (and surprising knowledge of Northeast geography) that would shake the torpor off a sloth. The town sheriff (Len Cariou) gets involved; so does a fixer?private detective (Charles S. Dutton) whom Rainey had previously hired to help him deal with a case of plagiarism to which he readily pled guilty.
”Secret Window,” a minor one-twist tale, sets up and knocks down the usual King pins about what all work and no play can do to the Jacks – and Morts – of the world, and the story roots around dutifully in by-now-familiar SK notions of real life being stranger than fiction. But if this pseudo-thriller isn’t scarier than fiction too – it’s a toss-up whether the creepiest sight is a dead guy with a screwdriver jammed into the side of his noggin or the shape of John Shooter’s tombstone of a hat perched on Turturro’s almond of a head – at least Koepp and Depp do what they can to drum up some fun for themselves.
The sheriff enjoys working on needlepoint projects in the office – so very ”Picket Fences.” The fixer uses a chess clock to keep track of his billable time when talking with his client. The middle-aged housekeeper who attempts to tidy up Rainey’s place has a silly-dilly soft spot for her famous employer – a variation, of sorts, on Kathy Bates’ No. 1 Fan in ”Misery.” While Koepp the director enjoys arbitrarily dragging viewer attention to clichéd horror-flick close-up objets like doorknobs and kitchen faucets, Koepp the writer enjoys free-associating in and out of genre. ”This is not my beautiful house. This is not my beautiful wife… anymore,” Rainey’s interior voice tells him, minus the Talking Heads music, as he spies on his ex and her new love. (On her bed, the ex can be glimpsed reading a title by T.C. Boyle.)
And amid all the free-form playfulness, with each actor invited to bring his or her own covered dish of a character interpretation to the party, Depp appears to have his own private ball. He makes monster faces at the housekeeper behind her back. He works up an elaborate tic involving a clicking jaw that gets funnier and funnier just as Rainey is supposedly getting screwier and more frightened. He demonstrates a dozen different ways to play a man unwillingly awakened from sleep, and he comes up with a rakish look for a writer staring at his laptop computer, choking on the second sentence of a new short story. Sometimes he wears a black knit watch cap, very boho. For an inexplicable moment or two he sports a mouth full of braces. ”Secret Window” doesn’t keep any secrets but an open one: that Johnny Depp is on a roll, and actor’s block is definitely not his problem.