Your enjoyment of Mortdecai is likely going to be based on one thing: how much you can stand late period Johnny Depp. If you still find his faux-British sauntering thing endearing and enjoyable, you’ll probably have a good time. If however, like me, you’ve been growing tired of it since the second Pirates Of The Caribbean movie, you might find it a bit of a chore.
Based on author Kyril Bonfiglioli’s series of cult novels, Depp plays Charlie Mortdecai, an cartoonish upper crust art dealer-slash-conman, with a mansion in Oxford and staring bankruptcy down the barrel. When a rare Goya painting is stolen, old acquaintance and MI5 agent Alistair Martland (Ewan McGregor) throws Mortdecai a bone – retrieve the painting and he’ll clear his tax debt. What follows is a half Bond, half Pink Panther globe trotting romp, featuring Russian mobsters, Nazi gold and unfunny jokes about moustaches.
Depp plays Mortdecai as the most over-the-top toffee nosed cad imaginable. Remember the Thirteenth Duke of Wybourne, the posho Paul Whitehouse played on The Fast Show who couldn’t be left alone with the girls’ volleyball team, with his reputation? Well that’s exactly what Depp does here (Whitehouse himself even appears as a possible tip of the hat). The problem is, it’s just not funny enough. Depp isn’t as genuinely cool as, say, Terry Thomas, nor is he as outlandish as Whitehouse’s creation, and all we’re left with annoying standard Johnny Depp hammery. It’s just a broad English accent for the sake of a broad English accent.
Late in the film, Mortdecai ends up in a trendy LA hotel, in one of the few scenes that actually feels like it was set in this decade. As a fish out of water, surrounded by hipsters and fashionistas, he’s suddenly a lot more entertaining. Director David Koepp (Stir Of Echoes, Premium Rush, Ghost Town) is trying to create a live action cartoon, which he occasionally gets right (the ‘plane flying across the map’ bits are fun and inventive), but all the best moments come from the cartoon characters interacting with the real world, not the obnoxious world he creates.
Koepp made his name as a screenwriter on monster hits like Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible and Spider-Man, and he seems to have used his rolodex of connections to line up a lot of decent names to appear. Gwyneth Paltrow plays Mortdecai’s wife, and does her flawless British accent but little else. Olivia Munn plays a nymphomaniac seductress. Jeff Goldblum turns up, and things are always a little bit better when Jeff Goldblum turns up.
Paul Bettany plays Mortdecai’s manservant/bodyguard with the unfunny name of ‘Jock Strap’, and is mildly amusing, but essentially he’s just playing Jason Statham. Which really makes me wish they’d actually got the real Statham for the role. The Stath has an underrated touch for comedy that’s rarely seen outside of the Crank films, and this could have been a great breakout role for him. Instead, Bettany’s performance just feels false and insincere, much like Depp’s Leslie Phillips riffing as the title character.
Nailing the tone for something like this is really difficult. It reminds me a lot of 2012’s Gambit, which had a script by the Coen Brothers, but was directed by someone else (Michael Hoffman), and it resulted in a grating, unbearably unfunny trainwreck. Mortdecai isn’t that bad, but it really shows how you can’t just put a load of wacky people being wacky together and expect it to work. Something like The Big Lebowski or O Brother, Where Art Thou? requires real skill.
Apart from Depp’s over-acting frequently being grating, nothing in the film is actually that awful. It’s a breezy enough time passer, and the retro score, by composer Geoff Zanelli teaming up with Mark Ronson, is genuinely good fun. The action scenes are refreshingly CGI-free, but nothing to write home about. It’s just an incredibly blah movie, of which the only thing you’ll remember is how annoying Johnny Depp was.
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