Johnny Depp characterising critics as all-powerful movie slayers is pure delusion

With newspapers laying off arts writers, the suggestion The Lone Ranger has been ruined by dishonest reviewers seems paradoxical. Perhaps there are other reasons behind the blockbuster's US flop?

Actors Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer and producer Jerry Bruckheimer complained publicly this week that a slew of poor (and, they allege, dishonest) reviews killed their new movie The Lone Ranger on its US release in July. As many commentators were quick to point out on Twitter, this is poppycock. “I blame the studio that couldn’t help the filmmakers locate the fun, less-convoluted 100-minute film that's struggling to get out,” said Charles Gant, film editor of Heat magazine and the Guardian’s box-office analyst. Jonathan Dean of the Sunday Times observed correctly: “It’s one of [Depp’s] poorer arguments. Critics hated the last THREE Pirates movies and they did so well they’re making another.”

I enjoyed parts of The Lone Ranger, directed by Gore Verbinski (who made the first three Pirates of the Caribbean instalments), but it’s not a massively audience-friendly film. At nearly two-and-a-half hours, with an uncertain tone that veers wildly between slapstick, action-adventure and the outright macabre, it is less like a summer tentpole release than a vaudeville show or a student revue (albeit one on a budget so large that Disney had to step in to halt production and prune the costs). It is absolutely the filmmakers’ right to make the movie they wanted to make, and if the studio is willing to trust them on their judgements, however eccentric, then they are luckier than most in the current straitened climate.

But to then whinge at critics because that big-budget gamble didn’t pay off is somewhat undignified. Hammer even suggested that US critics only came after The Lone Ranger because their attempts to savage another beleaguered production—World War Z, which also suffered off-screen setbacks—were frustrated when that movie went on to become a moderate hit. “This is the deal with American critics: they’ve been gunning for our movie since it was shut down the first time,” the actor said. “That’s when most of the critics wrote their initial reviews… They tried to do the same thing with World War Z. It didn’t work, the movie was successful. Instead they decided to slit the jugular of our movie.”

This idea of critics as serial killers prowling the multiplexes with the smell of blood in their nostrils is simultaneously quaintly amusing and entirely whacko. It bears no relation to reality. A tiny release playing on a handful of screens can be buried by a bad review from an influential writer, or lifted out of obscurity for a few days by a positive one. But a blockbuster rarely dies unless there are extenuating circumstances: if the audience wasn’t put off by the pre-release whiff of perceived trouble on The Lone Ranger, perhaps the picture fell foul of the curse of the western, an especially difficult genre to market to modern audiences. So far the film has taken $175m on a $215m budget—bad news indeed. It’s too early to say what its total gross will be but from the outside it resembles the Will Smith flop Wild Wild West all over again (old TV show adaptation lacking any modern-day currency of familiarity; major box-office star; western theme). That took $222m on a $170m budget, another poor result.

Contrary to what Depp and his compadres believe, the critical fraternity is in a more vulnerable position than ever. In the past few years, the Village Voice disgraced itself by sacking some of the finest film writers in the US—including J. Hoberman and Dennis Lim—while here in the UK the latest cull was at the Independent on Sunday, which has exhibited the grossest philistinism in cutting loose its entire team of arts critics from September. I haven’t read the Village Voice since Hoberman was pushed, and I can’t think of a reason to buy a national newspaper like the IoS when it places such paltry value on brilliant and informed critical writing. But the situation is hardly helped by wealthy and powerful Hollywood titans suggesting that any bad reviews must be motivated by spite, collusion or conspiracy. The same critics, presumably, who gave rave reviews to earlier Verbinski comedies like the hugely inventive Mousehunt and Rango, or who praised Depp’s idiosyncratic turns in the Pirates movies. Or were those different, cuddlier critics?

The Lone Ranger is released on Friday.

Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer in The Lone Ranger.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era