Tim Burton, who gave the horror genre a “Leave it to Beaver” twist with Frankenweenie, made Paul Reubens a role model in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and added a hint of menace to Batman, has moved beyond TV-land inspirations to make a movie about a moviemaker. With Ed Wood, Burton has created a weirdly loving portrait of a man often mentioned as the worst director of all time.

Wood made 12 movies in the very outer fringes of Hollywood, but he never achieved mainstream fame. Ed Wood confines itself to the director’s early years in Hollywood, when he made his best-known works, Glen or Glenda? (1953) and Plan 9 From Outer Space (made in 1956 but not released until 1959), thereby avoiding his later slide into alcoholism, making hard-core porn movies and contributing to sleazy magazines. He died in 1978 at the age of 54. Burton has used this happier slice of Wood’s life to sketch a portrait of a director known more by reputation than by output; for wearing skirts rather than chasing them.

Johnny Depp plays Ed Wood with an endearing Mickey Rooney-like “gosh everybody let’s put on a show!” enthusiasm, which goes a long way toward explaining how he managed to get his shoe-string budgets off the ground. Depp shows a surprising liveliness which has been absent from his other performances. Wood’s capacity for writing, directing, casting and obtaining financing for his movies was not as impressive, however, as his infectious ability to always look on the bright side of any situation. Ed Wood relives many of the strange but true incidents from his life, such as his hiring of a colorblind cameraman, his theft of a mechanical octopus and his affinity for directing in drag.

Wood’s optimism, negligible talent and desire for recognition are established early in the movie at the disastrous opening of a play that he has written and directed. Later, inspired by the international headline-hitting story of Christine Jorgensen’s sex change operation, Wood talks himself into a job making a film along similar lines for a producer of low-budget movies. The result, Glen or Glenda?, turned out to be more of an apologia of transvestitism, rather than the exploitation fare his producer had expected. Framed by the fifties convention of a psychologist/explicator, and filled with lines like, “Only the infinity of the depths of a man’s mind can really tell the story,” Glen or Glenda? tells the story of a transvestite (played by Wood) engaged to a girl to whom he is afraid to reveal his fondness for wearing women’s clothing.

Ed Wood follows the director’s attempts to fund his next project, Plan 9 From Outer Space which is eventually financed by a Los Angeles church. Never one to let details get in his way, Wood has the entire crew baptized to help prod the church into loosening its purse strings. As he argued so emphatically in Glen or Glenda?, just because a man wears women’s clothing, it doesn’t mean that he is homosexual. Wood has a girlfriend, Dolores Fuller (Sarah Jessica Parker) and later a devoted wife, Kathy (Patricia Arquette). However, it is Wood’s friendship with the down-and-out horror star Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau) that proves to the movie’s most moving relationship.

Wood befriended the elderly, morphine-addicted Lugosi and cast him in both Glen or Glenda? and Plan 9 From Outer Space. Burton lavished a good deal of screen time on their friendship and he obviously shares Wood’s fondness and respect for the actor. Landau’s portrayal is surely the standout of the movie, even if the character’s profanity helped Ed Wood earn an R rating, a ridiculous slap at a movie whose depictions of eccentric characters and marginal lifestyles is more good-natured rather than distasteful.

Stefan Czapsky’s gorgeous black and white photography and Howard Shore’s terrific Theremin-laced score lend a high gloss quality reminiscent of low-budget movies of the era. The opening credits—a graveyard populated with tombstones of the cast’s names, a narrator popping out of a casket and an obvious model shot of Hollywood—prepare the audience for the world of Ed Wood. Once the movie gets going, however, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski’s script leaves Ed Wood on a trail to nowhere. Burton and his writers were provided with a character rather than having to develop one and the story coasts on charm rather than runs on narrative legs.

Burton is so obviously enamored of his subject that he doesn’t dare criticize Wood or his movies. It is much easier to respect Ed Wood the man, than “Edward D. Wood Jr.” the moviemaker. Wood’s complete indifference to technicalities like wobbly sets, missed cues and visible wire are amusing in a biography, but are hardly the compelling basis for a film about a moviemaker. Burton avoids taking an even slightly critical look at his subject, creating a soft, formless movie that is too much in love with its subject. Ed Wood is a pleasant, funny movie, with scant concern for depth of character, motivation or drama. It would have made its namesake proud. MM