Can Johnny Depp Find the Right Balance to Pull Off a Houdini Biopic?

Johnny Depp, Ed WoodBuena Vista Pictures via Everett Collection

Now that he’s played gangsters, pirates and mad hatters, Johnny Depp is set to make some real magic. The Oscar-nominated actor is reportedly in talks to play Harry Houdini in a biopic about the legendary magician, according to Variety. Based on the book The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero, the film will chronicle Houdini’s life and career, from his poor childhood, his international fame and the time he spent working as a spy, culminating in his mysterious death on Halloween, 1926. Dean Parisot, who has previously directed Galaxy Quest and Red 2 is on board to direct, which bodes well for the film’s intense stunt sequences, and will feature a script from The Maze Runner‘s Noah Oppenheim.

Depp has long been Hollywood’s go-to actor whenever a film requires someone to play an oddball that still appeals to a mainstream audience, so it’s not particularly surprising that he’s being considered for the role. As an escape artist, illusionist, actor and aviator, Houdini cultivated a reputation for mystery and confusion over the course of his career, and even his death was shrouded in suspicion. Since the height of his fame in the early 20th century, his name has become synonymous with everything weird, perplexing and difficult to explain. Therefore, a fitting biopic would need to incorporate that reputation with the right amount of campiness to properly evoke the vaudeville spirit of his magic shows, and there are few actors in Hollywood who better exemplify campy darkness than Depp. 

All of his most famous characters feature the kind of strange, off quality that is necessary to play Houdini, and both his on and off-screen personas lend themselves to portraying someone who is famous for the mystery that surrounds them. And despite being taller than the famously-short Houdini was, Depp looks the part, sharing the same sharp cheekbones, bright blue eyes and charming smile that Houdini was described as having. Depp often uses his charm and wit to make kooky characters seem friendly and entertaining, and Houdini often used his charisma in a similar way, drawing in massive audiences to witness his death-defying stunts. Plus, if there’s anyone in Hollywood who looks like an off-duty illusionist, it’s the guy who played Edward Scissorhands

Though Depp’s campiness and oddball nature is a major strength of his, many of his recent films have abandoned any kind of subtlety in favor of fully embracing all of the weirdness and absurdity they could possibly pack into one film. While that approach may work for something like Alice in Wonderland, which is set in a fantasy world, it doesn’t necessarily bode well for a biopic that is grounded in reality. Houdini was a weird character, but his story is still rooted in the very real dangers that his profession and hobbies provided. A little bit of camp would serve the story well, but too much will overwhelm it and reduce it to simply a vehicle for another wacky performance of Depp’s. 

Biopics aren’t Depp’s forte as an actor, as it’s often difficult to find real-life person whose story requires the kind of kookiness that Depp naturally exudes. His most recent, Public Enemies, was too serious to allow Depp to properly throw himself into the role, resulting in a performance that felt stilted and wooden. Watching the film, it was difficult to separate Depp from the character of John Dillinger, which makes it difficult for audiences to really connect with the story. While Depp should have better luck losing himself in a character like Houdini, it’s still going to be a challenge for him to let go of his off-screen persona and allow moviegoers to experience Houdini, rather than Depp-as-Houdini. 

If the script for the film veers too serious, it runs the risk of confining Depp, resulting in an awkward, wooden performance. However, if it edges too far into the absurd, the character or Houdini will probably be overshadowed by all of the funny tics and strange character choices that Depp will make. His recent films aren’t known for their moderation, so it would require a strong directorial vision to keep Depp from chewing the scenery to the detriment of the story as a whole. The box office returns of his recent films seem to suggest that fans are looking for something different from Depp, as both the over-the-top weirdness of Lone Ranger and his straight-computer turn in Transcendence failed to win them over. Houdini could be the median he needs to impress moviegoers again, but if the film leans too far into the surreal or the straightforward, Depp will just be doing the same old thing. 

Hopefully Depp and the team behind the Houdini biopic will be able to find the right balance between insanity and history in order to make a film that’s both critically and financially successful. After all, it’s difficult to find a guy who can pull off the suit-and-shackles look quite like Depp can.