Lionsgate presents a film directed by David Koepp. Screenplay by Eric Aaronson. Based on the novel “Don’t Point That Thing At Me” by Kyril Bonfiglioi. Produced by Christi Dembrowski, Johnny Depp, Andrew Lazar. Music by Mark Ronson, Geoff Zanelli. Photographed by Florian Hoffmeister. Edited by Jill Savitt. Production designed by James Merifield. Costumes designed by Ruth Meyers. Starring Johnny Depp, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ewan McGregor, Olivia Munn, Paul Bettany, Jeff Goldblum.
Imagine everything annoying about Johnny Depp, assembled together and cranked up to eleven. That gives you a hint of the catastrophic miscalculation that is Mortdecai, a dismal and desperate comic caper that aims for 60’s swagger and misses, big time. As Lord Charlie Mortdecai, manor-born art historian, Depp dines high on the caricature hog, crafting a sneering, prancing, preening, mincing, fey monstrosity who is supposed to be our incorrigible hero, but he stirs only loathing. With his curly mustache, Terry Thomas-inspired voice, cultivated style and vulgar demeanor, Depp’s Mortdecai is pure-grade pest and just plain unpleasant to be around. And the movie, constructed with all the one-note smugness of a star-studded vanity piece, is no better.
It takes a special breed of actor to disappear into a role, especially one as arch as stylized as this one. Ralph Fiennes just did it last year with his brilliant turn in The Grand Budapest Hotel, but Depp is no Fiennes. Nor is he much of a Peter Sellers, whose Pink Panther series informs a number of Mortdecai’s tics and mannerisms. Sellers was a perfectionist and a comedic genius, while Depp, perhaps, has been once too often that he is a genius. Here he makes choices that are just obnoxious. We never forget that it’s Depp in the role, and Depp never feels the need to create a consistent caricature, nor even a series of caricatures that feels like they’re tied to an actual character. This is tricky to achieve, but it’s possible, and it’s helpful.
The supporting characters have the advantage of not being Charlie Mortdecai, but they’re employed by a script and direction that favors limp, repetitive comedy. There’s Mortdecai’s long-suffering wife Johanna (Gwyneth Paltrow), who cannot stand the new mustache on Charlie’s face; kissing him makes her retch, which inspires his sympathetic gag reflex. This joke used a number of times, and you can only imagine how hilarious it could get at iteration number ten. Yes, it’s literally a running gag.
There’s also a sexually frustrated police inspector (Ewan McGregor) who wants to steal Johanna from under his nose. We’re not supposed to root for him, even though the two of them are clearly the better match. And there’s Mortdecai’s faithful and brutish manservant, Jock (Paul Bettany), who does all the work while Charlie gets all the credit. Jock’s only consolation prize is that he’s a skilled pickup artist and a tireless lover, and his efforts to help his master are always punctuated by quickies. The movie keeps telling the same joke over and over about how it’s preposterous that beautiful women could be drawn to a man who looks like Paul Bettany, which may come as news to Bettany’s real-life wife, Jennifer Connelly.
The plot, involving a lost Goya painting with Nazi bank account numbers scribbled on it, is inconsequential, but it leads to a great many chases in London, Moscow and Los Angeles, the last of which fills Lord Mortdecai with disdain. See, it’s funny because Depp is an American playing an Englishman who hates Americans. Ha ha. Jeff Goldblum then turns up as an American millionaire and art collector, and while Goldblum has been turning up a lot lately, his role is so abbreviated that he probably should have stayed home for this one. Olivia Munn is Goldblum’s daughter, who is introduced as a nymphomaniac, and so one would assume that, as a comic principle, something would be done to pay off that setup in some way. One would think that, but that’s not what happens.
And so on. Like many bad movies, Mortdecai must have seemed like a good idea at the time. It’s based on a series of novels by Kyril Bonfiglioli that are liked. It’s directed by David Koepp, who is a successful Hollywood player (he wrote the script for Jurassic Park). But something went terribly wrong here, and the picture is a jaw-dropping, borderline-inept disaster. But maybe the most shocking thing about Mortdecai is its R rating, which makes it too adult for kids and yet too juvenile for adults. Who was this movie for then? Possibly no one, in which case one can hope it reaches its intended audience.