"Secret Window" is a jokey, junky potboiler about a hack novelist, played by Johnny Depp, accused of plagiarism. His accuser is a nasty gentleman named John Shooter who arrives at his lakeside cabin in the form of John Turturro. Shooter wears one of Jed Clampett's old wide-brimmed hats and has a Southern accent so thick with evil that when he says where he's from ("Mizzizzippee"), you can almost smell the brimstone.
Wagging a beat-up manuscript, Shooter is not scary so much as he's scarily funny, but Depp's Mort Rainey is concerned. Could he have stolen this man's story? If so, why doesn't he remember? While Shooter waits for Mort to dig up proof that the story in question is indeed his, he puts a screwdriver in the writer's dog, Chico, and later some other sharp objects through Mort's other pals, demanding that Mort rewrite the book's ending to his nutty assailant's satisfaction. It's only a matter of time before Mort reacquaints himself with cigarettes and whiskey and starts holding amusing conversations with himself.
In case it hadn't yet occurred to you, all this writer's-worst-nightmare business means we're back in the hands of Stephen King. Actually, only the gloves are King's. The fingers inside them belong to the screenwriter and director David Koepp, who's adapted the movie from a King novella. And the fit seems about right. Having written "Bad Influence," "Stir of Echoes," and "Panic Room," Koepp has been tooling around the horror and thriller aisles for years. And "Secret Window" is proof that he can bring off such nonsense with a little wit.
The movie never seems quite sure what to do with Mort's soon-to-be-ex-wife, Amy (Maria Bello), and her new man, Teddy (Timothy Hutton), so they become nagging inconveniences. In their defense, all they want is for him to sign the divorce papers. Mort's refusals are bewildering. She's annoying. Further questions of what and why persist. Not all the deaths add up, and even the pretend-dim local sheriff (Len Cariou, who's great) is scratching holes in his head that go well with the ones in the plot. Eventually, the movie offers a twisty explanation for Shooter and the plagiarism stuff that doesn't wash -- at least on a first viewing.
A second helping would be hard to justify were it not for Depp, whose manic idea of comedy seems right for a Stephen King thriller. Here he proves that "Pirates of the Caribbean" wasn't a fluke; he really is a movie star. He spends most of "Secret Window" running around in a tattered bathrobe and with his unruly hair fried by blond highlights. From his first scene with the clammy Turturro, he has the audience hanging on his every reaction. If an actor has a theaterful of people eating out of his hand the way Depp does here, any old movie can be exhilarating.
Whether he's shaking a telephone receiver in exasperation when Bello's on the other end or firing an invisible gun at the woman playing his housekeeper, Depp seems thrilled to be pleasing a crowd. He's always been fully committed. But now, after years of sitting through movies starring people who couldn't care less that we've come, we finally seem ready for him. In "Secret Window," Depp works harder than actors with half his street cred and four times his bankability. If this movie's beneath him, he's not telling.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.