Director Spotlight: Gore Verbinski
by Barry Wurst
May 24, 2007
If nothing else, Gore Verbinski was always going to be known as the guy who made those "Bud... Weis... Er" frog commercials. Truly some of the most popular of all Superbowl ads, this one-time music video director hit it big with his swamp-set spots for Budweiser beer. Whether he would make a good feature film director was another story - his wide range of very different films and astonishing successes set Verbinski apart immediately. Today, while (arguably) best known for his Captain Jack adventures, Verbinski continues to impress with an adaptable style that makes him a good fit for just about any film project that comes his way.
May 24 - Gore Verbinski
His debut, MouseHunt (1997), didn't appear promising. Opening the same day as Titanic and Tomorrow Never Dies, it was one of the first DreamWorks releases (following The Peacemaker and Amistad) but not one expected to make much of a blip during the '97 holiday season. While not a classic (and not a blockbuster, either), MouseHunt was better than merely good. In fact, as far as live action family films go, it's occasionally terrific. Entertainment Weekly tossed it off as "The Money Pit with a rodent", but this wildly stylish comedy has a pitch-black sense of humor and look that Tim Burton would've appreciated. Starring Nathan Lane and (get this) Christopher Walken, the movie, an elaborate exercise in sly humor, slapstick and inventive special effects, has as much depth as a Road Runner cartoon and is equally twisted fun.
The Mexican (2001) was not a follow-up one would expect from the director of a kid-catering comedy (albeit a really ghoulish one). It seemed like a no-brainer star vehicle on the surface, with Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt starring in a film from a hot screenplay. Yet, the film itself is not a romantic comedy at all and Pitt and Roberts have very little screen time together. While there are a few laughs here and there, this is actually the kind of violent, offbeat, anything-goes crime caper you'd expect from The Coen Brothers. The reviews were mostly mixed (though a few liked it) and audiences abandoned it after the big opening weekend. The consensus is that the film is overlong and that James Gandolfini steals the film (I agree wholeheartedly). It's saying something that a late-movie cameo by Gene Hackman isn't enough to salvage an ambitious but thoroughly uneven romp.
Again, thwarting expectations but this time with enormous success, Verbinski did a remake of Ringu and scared the crap out of America. The Ring (2002) was a huge success for DreamWorks (Verbinski's home base), finally made a star out of Naomi Watts and launched a now-tired trend of remakes of Asian horror films. While often similar to the original, Verbinski's take on the bizarre material is more bizarre and elaborate than the source material, which it honors in a grim, straight-faced manner. The film is so serious that is almost could be laughable (something Scary Movie 3 picked up on and milked dry) but the story, take-it-or-leave-it surrealism and spooky imagery make it compelling. Worth noting is that the sequel, The Ring Two, was directed and written by the creator of Ringu and it is neither good nor scary.
Following this break-out success, it looked like Verbinski was about to commit career suicide. On paper, a movie based on an old Disneyland ride, starring big name actors, with a mammoth budget, didn't sound like a good idea. In fact, considering it was the first pirate movie in a while (after the genre had torpedoed itself years ago), it sounded like a guaranteed disaster. Johnny Depp, while frequently brilliant, was not a sure thing (unless he was starring in a Tim Burton film) and co-star Orlando Bloom was a fan favorite from Lord of the Rings but not an automatic draw either (ditto Bend It Like Beckham's Keira Knightly). The teaser trailer wasn't promising and it looked like a yar-riffic pirate turkey, along the lines of Cutthroat Island. Instead, an incredible thing happened - except for Finding Nemo, Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) smoked all of the summer movie competition, was a critically acclaimed, much-loved smash hit that reinvented the pirate movie genre and pleased fans worldwide. Cult favorite Depp was now a bonafide movie star (and a first time Oscar nominee for his typically inventive, surprising and witty performance) and Bloom and Knightly found newfound superstardom as well.
Naysayers had to eat dirt as Pirates broke records worldwide and became one of the biggest hits of the year and was far more popular than The Matrix Reloaded, which, from the outset, was seen to be the can't-miss hit of the summer (it wasn't). The momentum of Pirates of the Caribbean was so strong that Once Upon a Time in Mexico, which starred Antonio Banderas and Depp (who steals the whole film) was a surprise hit, as audiences were eager to see Depp again.
Rather than go straight to the sequel, Verbinski tried yet another change of pace, the solemn, sometimes wonderful The Weather Man (2005). For all of the good things about the film (Nicolas Cage's soulful performance, Michael Caine's excellent supporting turn, and a handful of terrific scenes), the overwhelmingly downbeat nature of the film does make it a drag. It seemed like the movie was positioned to be a hit, as it was scheduled to open directly after Cage's National Treasure. Instead of riding on the momentum of that film, the studio pushed the release date back, from March to October, hoping to capitalize on the Oscar season. Instead, following Cage's flop Lord of War, The Weather Man tanked, with bad word of mouth not helping (truthfully, the ad campaign made it look like an out-and-out comedy, not a somber character piece like American Beauty). Despite its flaws, the film deserves its cult status, as the acting, filmmaking and brutally honest screenplay are commendable.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006) received mixed reviews but was a monster hit anyway. Even those who weren't crazy about it defend it, saying that part two's of a trilogy often feel disjointed, as they are a middle piece of the bigger story. Naysayers felt the endless array of effects and overstuffed plot overwhelmed the character development and that a little of Depp's Captain Jack went a long, long way this time. The few who disliked it didn't make a dent at the box office, as Dead Man's Chest only tripled Depp's worldwide fans, which made Capt. Jack Sparrow a movie hero seemingly as beloved as Indiana Jones! Love it or hate it, Dead Man's Chest was a huge undertaking and Verbinski made a film overflowing with splendid visuals, larger than life slapstick and knockabout comedy akin to the silent era.
Whether it will all be worth it and if Dead Man's Chest will be reevaluated as a fitting part two of a well rounded trilogy with the release of At World's End (2007), we'll see. Like Sam Raimi, it seems to be time for Verbinski to move beyond the trilogy that he brought so much ingenuity to and baffle audiences yet again. As a director who gave us a bone chilling horror film, one of the best live action children's films, an underappreciated Nicolas Cage drama and made Johnny Depp a world famous star, Verbinski is not yet a household name but his uncanny knack at hopscotching successfully from one genre to another makes him one to watch.