The Players: Johnny Depp, a sometimes sell-out actor whose latter Pirates of The Carribbean flicks we forgive because it's easy to admire a guy who started on 21 Jump Street and given us What's Eating Gilbert Grape, Ed Wood, and Sweeney Todd; Wichita, Kansas home to Wichitans who aren't ready to forgive Depp for The Rum Diary.
The Opening Serve: While making the rounds to promote The Rum Diary, Johnny Depp spoke with The Guardian about the film's box-office prognosis--early returns pointed to the film not even breaking even. "I believe that this film, regardless of what it makes in, you know, Wichita, Kansas, this week – which is probably about $13 – it doesn't make any difference," Depp told The Guardian. "I believe that this film will have a shelf life. I think it will stick around and people will watch it and enjoy it." Depp was asked to compare Rum Diary's success in the United States and Europe, "Most definitely. It's something that will be more appreciated over here, I think. Cos it's – well, I think it's an intelligent film ... And a lot of times, outside the big cities in the States, they don't want that."
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The Return Volley: Wichitans voiced their opinion in the Wichita Eagle's business blog. "That’s just sour grapes," said theater owner Bill Warren, who didn't care for Rum Diary and who pointed out that his IMAX outsells its New York City counterpart. "Last time I heard, it [Depp's movie] didn’t do well in New York, either." Adding, "Ninety nine percent of people in America go to movies for entertainment, and it wasn’t a very entertaining movie, period." Lela Meadow-Conner, director of Wichita's Tallgrass Film Association, said: "People have these preconceived notions about cities like Wichita and cities in the Midwest ... Because his movie has been deemed a critical stinker ... and audiences haven’t gravitated toward it, obviously he is trying to displace the blame onto audiences here who he deems unintelligent." She cites the success of the nine-year-old Tall Grass Film Festival, "There are obviously people here who are interested in intelligent films."
What They Say They're Fighting About: The Rum Diary's supposed awfulness. Depp argues that a poor box office showing has no bearing on the quality of the film. He cites that America's lack of appetite for intelligent films is the reason Rum Diary isn't doing well. Wichitans beg to differ.
What They're Really Fighting About: Reputations: Depp being an "intelligent" actor; Wichita's lack of cultural tastebuds; City vs. Country; European elitism versus American taste. Depp is banking on a lot of preconceptions with his attack here, and uses his resumé and brand (and possibly Hunter S. Thompson) to back this idea that he knows intelligence, and that Wichita, and for that matter most of America doesn't--it's also no coincidence that Depp is pandering spilling the beans to a European (ok, British) paper for cultural and perhaps box office empathy (You guys are the only ones to get me. Look what I'm working with!). Wichita is fighting the (and it's not just Depp's) idea that Middle America has a blown-out sense of taste.
Who's Winning Now: Wichita. It's not just that The Rum Diary has a score of 56 on Metacritic or a 51 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. But for someone preaching about intelligence, Depp went about it in such a ham-fisted way. Depp has always straddled that line of serious actor and sell out, and audiences have, for the most part, forgiven him for it (the way they do Robert Downey Jr.). But blasting the Midwest for a lack of intelligence and taste is as contrived as it is cliché, and not a good idea when your movie is already flailing in the box office (alienating your customers is not a good business plan). Granted, box office success and movie quality aren't always relative, but it's also entirely possible that Johnny Depp just made a bad, unintelligent movie that won't bring in the money and it isn't Wichita's fault that he did.