Three stars. Rated R, and needless, for fleeting profanity and mild blue humor
By Derrick Bang
I’ve a soft spot for light-hearted caper flicks, and a corresponding tendency to treat them gently, during post-mortem analysis.
It’s therefore with great regret that I pronounce Mortdecai a crushing disappointment.
Although promoted as a caper saga, that’s not quite accurate; the closest our title character gets to a heist is climbing a ladder to enter a second-story window. And while the story does revolve around a rumored Goya masterpiece enhanced by the possibility that its canvas has been defaced with a code that might lead to long-lost Nazi gold, Eric Aronson’s script dwells too heavily on Mortdecai himself.
Preening, foppish, self-centered Charlie Mortdecai, played in full-blown, upper-class-twit mode by Johnny Depp.
Time was, a new Johnny Depp project was cause for celebration; he brought such panache to most everything he did a decade or so ago, in projects as diverse as Chocolat, From Hell, Finding Neverland and even the first Pirates of the Caribbean. More recently, though, his work has tended toward self-indulgent laziness, with Depp apparently coasting on the merits of his own career, and bringing little to each new party.
These days, in the wake of The Rum Diary, Dark Shadows and most particularly The Lone Ranger, we’re more inclined to roll our eyes at the prospect of a new Depp feature ... much the way his Mortdecai sighs theatrically and rolls his eyes at just about everything here.
That’s the major problem with director David Koepp’s approach; he and cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister focus far too much on Depp. Granted, one expects a movie’s star to receive the lion’s share of close-ups, but Depp’s slow, aristocratically condescending line readings — although initially droll — become tiresome, and eventually bring the otherwise fast-paced film to a grinding halt. Every. Time. He. Speaks.
Koepp is trying for a manic, effervescent blend of P.G. Wodehouse and The Pink Panther: a smart choice, since this film is inspired by the charismatic, forever cash-strapped, art-dealer anti-hero in a series of three comic novels by the late British author Kyril Bonfiglioli, and published back in the 1970s. His Mortdecai clearly is based on Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster, and the resemblance is cemented further by Mortdecai’s far more capable manservant Jock Strapp, an equally obvious nod to Bertie’s Jeeves.
Bonfiglioli’s Mortdecai books are beloved by no less than Stephen Fry, who will be remembered as the pluperfect Jeeves in the 1990 TV series he did with frequent colleague Hugh Laurie. And if this film’s press notes are to be believed, Depp himself is another Bonfiglioli fan. So far, so good.
The ingredients seem ideal, and Depp is surrounded by a cast of scene-stealing supporting players, none better than Paul Bettany’s handling of the thuggish but impressively resourceful Jock. No matter how dire the predicament, or how badly he gets injured in the process, Jock faithfully guards his employer, and never fails to address him courteously, as befits his lesser station.
Excepting his increasingly exasperated responses to Mortdecai’s running-gag question — “Will it all work out?” — as events escalate ever further out of control. Initially, Jock replies with a solicitous “I really couldn’t say, sir” ... but, eventually, even his patience wears thin. To delightful effect.
But that comes later. We catch up with Mortdecai as he attempts to ease a crushing tax debt — the price of living in a mansion larger than Buckingham Palace — by selling a vase of (we assume) questionable authenticity. The deal goes south, predictably, and Mortdecai returns home with nothing to show for his effort.
Elsewhere, debonair MI5 “special assignments” investigator Alistair Martland (Ewan McGregor) inherits a case involving an art restorer found dead under odd circumstances. Odder still: The painting she was laboring over has been stolen. Martland reluctantly summons Mortdecai, who — demonstrating his one actual talent — identifies the supposedly lost Goya via photos developed from the victim’s camera.
Martland and Mortdecai have uncomfortable history: They attended Oxford together, and pursued the same young woman. Johanna (Gwyneth Paltrow) eventually married Mortdecai, and Martland has carried a torch ever since.
Word of the Goya spreads rapidly — and deliberately, as a means of smoking out interested parties — and Mortdecai quickly finds his life imperiled on numerous sides. Terrorist Emil Strago (Jonny Pasvolsky), the chief suspect, wants the Goya in order to finance a violent worldwide uprising. Snooty art dealer Sir Graham (Michael Culkin) has a Russian client (Ulrich Thomsen, as Romanov) who will stop at nothing to obtain it.
Romanov’s two pet thugs — Alec Utgoff’s Dmitri is a hoot — have a fondness for attaching car batteries to sensitive portions of the male anatomy.
Then there’s American billionaire Milton Krampf (Jeff Goldblum), whom Mortdecai loathes, but to whom he’s nonetheless selling his beloved Rolls Royce (that tax debt again). Mortdecai wouldn’t be surprised if Krampf somehow has his hand in the Goya theft.
What ensues involves plenty of danger, and Mortdecai responds to each new threat with the dainty squeal of a little girl ... a reaction which, somehow, doesn’t quite work. There’s a very fine line between droll impotence — which Hugh Laurie delivered unerringly, as Bertie Wooster — and aggravating spinelessness, and Depp too frequently slides toward the latter.
Cads must be lovable, in order to retain our sympathy, and Depp’s Mortdecai ... isn’t.
Frankly, it becomes hard to understand what Johanna sees in him.
That’s particularly true once we realize that she’s the brains in their relationship. Mortdecai would have been booted from British high society years ago, were it not for the loving care administered by his wife and Jock. Once apprised of the Goya situation, the far more savvy Johanna becomes very useful, particularly since she can cajole sensitive details from Martland.
Then there’s the matter of Mortdecai’s moustache.
He has just crafted this Hercule Poirot-ish appearance as the story begins, and Johanna hates it: loathes it so much, in fact, that it threatens their marriage. It also threatens the film, because Koepp, Aronson, Depp and all concerned spend far too much time on moustache matters. I suppose one shouldn’t be surprised, since make-up artist Joel Harlow is credited as a “moustache wrangler,” which demands that his work be showcased.
Which it is. Incessantly. Long past the point of wringing humor from such a trivial detail.
Further on the topic of elements that don’t quite work, we can point to an ill-advised vomit scene (a tedious go-to moment in far too many contemporary comedies). Olivia Munn also has a woefully underdeveloped role as Georgina, Krampf’s nymphomaniacal daughter. This character truly doesn’t work, and Munn — capable of so much better, as evidenced by her excellent co-starring role in HBO’s The Newsroom — looks helpless and embarrassed in every scene.
The cast of international suspects means plenty of travel, which unfolds via clever special-effects sequences that involve rapid-fire editing and 3D “location IDs.” I first remember seeing this sort of visually arresting typography during the opening credits of 2002’s Panic Room, which Koepp wrote; he obviously liked the effect, and makes excellent use of it here.
Production designer James Merifield gives the film a whimsical retro atmosphere, with echoes of the Swinging Sixties somehow slipping into an otherwise contemporary action comedy. The genre also demands a few obligatory vehicular chases, which — sadly — aren’t nearly as much fun as they should be.
Ultimately, that’s the core problem: Nothing here works quite as well as it should. Mortdecai is much less than the sum of its parts, and some of those don’t even gel.
A director must be held accountable for a film’s assembly, and although Koepp is a highly successful scripter/writer (Jurassic Park, Mission Impossible, the first Spider-Man and the aforementioned Panic Room, among many others), his helming efforts are spottier (The Trigger Effect, Secret Window and Ghost Town). Koepp never quite seems to know what to do with his casts, and that’s a crucial failing when it comes to burlesques such as Mortdecai.
Comedies require rigorous handling, and Koepp hasn’t got the touch. Nor was he able to keep Depp in line, and the results — while fitfully amusing — are unsatisfying.
Bonfiglioli’s novels definitely deserve to be resurrected and embraced by the current generation of readers, but this film is unlikely to kindle that spark. More’s the pity.