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Tim Burton Bottoms Out. Dark Shadows, Reviewed.

Illustration for article titled Tim Burton Bottoms Out. Dark Shadows, Reviewed.

1. How was there ever a time that we considered Tim Burton weird? He certainly isn't weird now—give this guy a slight haircut and he's essentially an insurance salesman—but in retrospect, knowing the bloated, self-satisfied cookie-cutter hack Burton turned out to be makes one wonder what all the excitement was about in the first place. None of his most beloved movies has aged well: Christopher Nolan made his Batman movies look like the Adam West show; Edward Scissorhands feels a lot more like the '80s kitsch it was supposedly undermining than anyone could have predicted (watch it again sometime); and his movies of the last 10 years have a depressing, clockwork sameness, well-satirized here. All his movies look fantastic, but they look fantastic ad infinitum, all variations on the original, and their lack of interest in human beings as human beings has eroded into a depressing, vaguely disturbing Peter Pan-ism. Is it possible the only two memorable characters from Tim Burton movies ended up being Ed Wood and Pee-wee Herman?

2. All right, maybe I'll give you Betelgeuse, but that movie—which was probably the best distillation of the Burton aesthetic, and it came out 24 years ago—serves as a microcosm of the whole problem: Burton keeps trying to re-make that movie, over and over. But that movie's mix of the macabre and the whimsical was a lot more revolutionary then than it is now; today, Burton just feels like an old, satisfied guy trying to pretend he's a young, tortured guy, for money. Never has this been more apparent than in Dark Shadows, which, I suspect, is going to represent a crossroads for Burton. He'll pretty much have to change up his formula after this, because this movie is a murky, chaotic mess from the beginning. It's as if, right before filming, everyone took a deep sigh and said, "Oh, wait ... we really have to do another one of these? Another one?" Their boredom is contagious.

3. I don't know anything about the original 1960s Dark Shadows television show (which they briefly remade in 1991, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt), but apparently Johnny Depp loved it, which is the only reason this movie was made in the first place; if there are fiercely loyal, literalist Dark Shadows fans on the Internet, I'm unaware of them. Not that it matters: The whole framework exists just for more of the same Burton business, just Xeroxed down to a fourth-generation copy. Oddly sexless (even when he's having sex) man-child played by Depp; big-busted tall blonde villainess; tragic disturbed raven-haired child/Burton substitute taken under the hero's helpful wing; endless pseudo-gothic architecture that is impressive but a lot less impressive than it was 10 years ago. Maybe the show was like this, maybe it wasn't, but it so seamlessly fits into the Burton universe that one wonders if Burton could do this with everything, if he could turn, say, The West Wing into some sort of Disney-safe "dark" story of creative, lonely children who take solace in the back closet of the Oval Office, where their visions of witches and goblins come to life. (Christopher Lee would totally play President Bartlet.)


4. This is all to say that the movie is as paint-by-numbers as anything Burton and Depp have ever done, and boy, does it ever show. There's a palpable, almost oppressive dullness to the proceedings, a slapdash potpourri hastily assembled to no real point other than "it has been a couple years since Depp and Burton made a lot of money together." Characters drift in and out of the film for little reason, and Burton casts smart actors like Eva Green, Jackie Earle Haley, and Chloe Grace Moretz and then doesn't do anything with them; it's as if he doesn't have the energy to even try. (And let's not even mention that pointless, out-of-nowhere Alice Cooper cameo.) Depp gives a little bit of effort—he's the one who supposedly loved the TV show—but the only time his performance really works is when he's doing a double-take as a Victorian vampire trapped in the '70s, baffled by things like McDonald's and Lava Lamps. That's the extent the movie is willing to work for a joke, by the way; he thinks there's blood in the Lava Lamp.

5. Here's a question: Has a Tim Burton movie ever been actually scary? They're all spooky moods and "creepy" Danny Elfman scores and increasingly inorganic Johnny Depp, but they never provide actual scares. They are, at their core, a pose. It's a pose exposed in Dark Shadows, which represents the nadir of Burton's career and is likely going to be his biggest flop, a film that's not a comedy, not a drama, not a horror film, and not a fantasy. It just sort of skitters along the surface, assuming the Burton formula will hold. But when you take away any story, any characters, and any real compelling reason to exist, the Burton formula is laid more bare than ever before: There is nothing there. This is the eighth collaboration between Depp and Burton, and it's probably time for them to go their separate ways; they're bringing out the worst in each other. And Burton, specifically, maybe needs to take a step back and try to remember what made him so excited about working in the movies in the first place. Because that goth kid who always felt like such an outsider? He now sells insurance to movie stars, and he's not nearly as good at it as he used to be.

Grade: D+.

Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.

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