If the violent uproar over the mere appearance of the Mortdecai trailer was to be any indication, this 2015 comedy would be one of the most egregious cinematic crimes ever committed. Luckily, hype of the negative or positive persuasion has a shelf life. That’s not to say this David Koepp project is a scorching hit, of course.
But it is to say that the preemptive negative appraisals have set Mortdecai off on the wrong foot, at least in terms of those incapable of making up their own minds. Those with a certain degree of abhorrence when it comes to slapstick or screwball comedy would do well to steer clear of Mortdecai, as there’s not an ounce of it that rings with seriousness.
Johnny Depp stars as Lord Charlie Mortdecai, an dodgy individual and art swindler. He and his wife Johanna (Gwyneth Paltrow) are in debt up to their eyeballs. Mortdecai takes a job with Inspector Martland (Ewan McGregor), who wants assistance in tracking down a stolen painting. The suspect is a man named Emil Strago (Jonny Pasvolsky).
Mortdecai, together with his manservant and bodyguard Jock Strapp (Paul Bettany), heads out to track the painting and find the thief. Johanna, too, conducts her own investigation and meets with a man (Michael Byrne) who believes the work of art has more value than initially believed. The trail leads to America, with Mortdecai meets with a potential buyer (Jeff Goldblum) and all hell breaks loose again.
Mortdecai is an old-fashioned caper in the style of a Blake Edwards flick, with Depp playing the rubbery comedic lead. He’s hard to pin down and that’s a problem because it makes his character very difficult to get into. There’s no questioning the fact that Charlie Mortdecai is an unlikable cad, but his proclivities are on the fluid side.
Depp appears to be relishing the chance to take a few flying leaps into lunacy. Indeed, he seems to appreciate the notion of toying with one’s audience and one’s expectations. People expect a certain version of Johnny Depp and begin to wonder “what happened” when that preconceived notion doesn’t Sparrow its way across celluloid.
But Mortdecai edges toward the more subversive end of the pool. It takes chances on irritation, delivering a lead with facial ticks and wild stream-of-consciousness ramblings that often ride right off the rails and into nothingness. The character, a cult creation of Kyril Bonfiglioli, is a slice of cinematic absurdity.
The film is also a throwback to the slippery capers of the 1950s and 1960s, only with fart jokes, vagina jokes, gagging jokes, and so on. Some running jokes get repetitive, as running jokes are wont to do. A particular gag involves Mortdecai’s moustache, his wife’s aversion to it, and what the lead character calls a “sympathetic gag reflex.”
Into this mess of gibberish, Koepp sinks a preening British sensibility that has Depp overdo his accent to the point of incongruity and finds even Paltrow having a blast as she figures out ways to toy with convention. She tackles her off-screen pretentiousness with a head-on collision of conceit, toying with her husband and McGregor’s poor policeman.
The plot of Mortdecai wanders around a great deal and is more difficult than it needs to be, especially since Koepp is more interested in following the jokes than handling a story. This makes the picture more a medley of moments and setups, which seems unnecessary when one considers the potential riches available from Bonfiglioli’s Don’t Point that Thing at Me.
Even Bettany rocks it as Jock Strapp, a sexually insatiable bodyguard who inexplicably stands by Mortdecai’s side through damn well everything. He proves himself a near-master of comedic timing, even if the CGI-assisted slapstick does him no favours. The movie is at its best when it allows Bettany, Depp, Paltrow, Goldblum, and the great Olivia Munn to mine their comic resources.
It’s at its worst when it refuses to trust itself. There are many points when the skeleton starts to show and Koepp’s confidence wavers. There isn’t a lot to the cinematography, despite the glut of locales, and the soundtrack is sometimes unsuitable and misshapen. But it’s far from the advertised disaster, with more than enough buggering around to fill 106 or so minutes.