Unseating James Caan as the least convincing Stephen King stand-in ever, Johnny Depp is hopelessly miscast in "Secret Window," a hokey, emotionally remote thriller based on a novella from the author's "Four Past Midnight" collection. Depp's role as embattled author Mort Rainey hands him the thankless task of supporting King's deathless delusion that writers are the natural protagonists of all our daydreams, endlessly fascinating in their struggles against creative blockage and a dim, potentially psychotic readership. This is what happens when the dictum "Write what you know" is allowed to curdle into "Don't show one iota of interest in anything outside your own narrow frame of reference."
Working in a cabin located in the wilds of -- let's all say it together -- "Maine," Rainey becomes the target of John Shooter (John Turturro), a hayseed with an ax to grind. Shooter says that one of Rainey's published stories was plagiarized from his own amateur writings, and he has the dog-eared original manuscript to prove it. This "evidence," of course, should only demonstrate Shooter's ability to retype material borrowed from his local library, and watching Rainey go through several minutes' worth of onscreen soul-searching before reaching the same conclusion is our first hint that "Secret Window" will value contrivance over coherence. As Shooter resorts to shocking violence to get his point across, writer/director David Koepp's ("Stir of Echoes") adapted screenplay shirks the logical rhythms that would ground its gleeful "gotcha" games in reality. (In an inadvertent tip of the hat to tricked-out misfires past, a parallel plot about Mort's collapsed marriage includes flashbacks set in a motel that's straight out of the equally bogus "Identity.")
Still, there's a compelling story to be told here about creativity and its attendant risk of psychological exposure. In its most sincere moments, "Secret Window" is almost that film. But making Rainey's ordeal accessible to the average audience -- to whom the specter of plagiarism is no more salient than the rising cost of domestic help -- would take a self-effacing leading man indeed. And Depp ain't it. His idea of regular-guy pathos is to have Rainey shuffle about the cabin in overstated befuddlement, his hair askew and his limbs poking through holes in his bathrobe as he scarfs Doritos, cracks his jaw and swats away imaginary flies. Depp's silent-movie goonery inspires laughs even when the script calls for gasps of fear; the essential wrongness of the performance is a sad reminder that the plaudits "fascinating to watch" and "great actor" are separated by miles of good taste and sound judgment.
Fans know that Depp likes to construct his characters as collages of existing personalities: His Jack Sparrow, he's said, was part Keith Richards and part Pepe LePew. Before he hits the news-magazine circuit to overanalyze this new and extraneous indulgence, let me go on record saying that his Mort Rainey struck me as half E.T. and half nobody I gave a damn about.