There is nothing less cool than a person trying to act like they are cool – and it’s not that much different in comedy. A comic performance embellished for maximum mugging and silliness may come off with the exact opposite reaction that was intended. An actor trying to pretend like they are funny without offering a natural knack for wit or tickled charm comes off as deeply unfunny. Case in point: Johnny Depp’s hideously off-key portrayal of an English aristocrat and art dealer in Mortdecai, a globe-trotting comedy of sorts from director David Koepp.
The international locales, A-list ensemble, frantic running gags and trumpet-filled score makes Mortdecai resemble a James Bond parody, like 1967’s Casino Royale or any of the Austin Powers films. What the film sorely lacks is a distinct comedic vibe – or, dare one say it, a mojo? – to keep both the tone consistent atop the rapid-fire jokes. Whereas Depp aims to make the crowds laugh it up with his fake moustache (a constant source of minimally amusing riffs and sight gags), indecipherable accent and staggered walk, the other performers give their lines a droll, deadpan reading.
While this creates a juxtaposition that could delight, Koepp, working from a script by Eric Aronson, doesn’t quite know which comic sensibility to follow: Depp’s wackiness or the wickedly dry approach employed by the rest of the ensemble. As a result, many of the jokes don’t land with much panache. (Aronson based his screenplay on the first from a series of novels by English novelist Kyril Bonfiglioli, whose works about the title character were bleaker and not as manic as Koepp’s comedy.)
For those curious about the trifling plot, the film follows Charlie Mortdecai, a wealthy English art dealer without much class or control over his estate’s finances. When a valuable Goya painting goes missing, Mortdecai attempts to track down the missing canvas, knowing that a code on its back can lead to a bank vault filled with Nazi loot. The central mystery surrounding the painting’s whereabouts and its historical ties is not all that interesting. Simply, it’s the MacGuffin to lead to new locations – all connected through a computer-generated sweep over the Earth, like a shinier GPS-style version of the map graphics from Raiders of the Lost Ark – and more frenetic comic and action-packed situations.
Surrounding the limp protagonist with the bushy upper lip are characters that are much more sly and refined. Whenever the film diverts from the titular man, the comedy hits harder and interest escalates among the audience. There is Mortdecai’s wife, Johanna (Gwyneth Paltrow). Men find her irresistible, which she uses to her advantage to glean information from her admirers. There is MI5 agent Alistair Martland (Ewan McGregor), who walks with the pomp and professionalism that the name implies. Smart and suave, Alistair only loses his authority when in a room with Johanna, whom he has dreamed of romancing since they were college classmates.
Meanwhile, Mortdecai has a henchman – also known as his “manservant and thug” – with a precise aim and a creased, black leather jacket named Jock (Paul Bettany). Jock’s affairs with buxom young women are one of the film’s only decent running jokes. Bettany’s scruffy masculinity brings the film many of its modest delights. His line readings draw grins, although laughs would be too generous.
Unfortunately, while the supporting cast does what they can to class up a shrill mess, they cannot stop Depp’s incessant mugging and garbled line readings, which are more annoying than funny. Their best efforts also do little to distract from the sexism often present during the antics. The men treat many of the women as objects of desire, with the screenplay putting a heavy emphasis on Mortdecai’s imbalanced stance as he reacts to large-breasted and/or skimpily clothed younger women. Olivia Munn, who plays the cavorting daughter of Jeff Goldblum’s American art collector, should be ashamed to have accepted the part of a dispirited sexpot.
The flurry of goofy sex-related jokes also exposes another of Mortdecai’s oddities. Aronson’s script does not seem to know the audience it is aiming for. The vulgar sexual references to nymphomania and “buggering” are meant for an adult crowd, but the film’s slapstick humor is too cartoonish for anyone over 12. As it stands, Mortdecai is one of the tamest films to ever receive an R rating.
Hopefully, its restricted rating will save younger crowds from wasting their valuable time and money on another strike in Johnny Depp’s descent from stardom. One of the most idiosyncratic actors of the 1990s and a box office star the next decade, the actor has not given a memorable turn since he played Sweeney Todd more than seven years ago. Here, he is enervating when he should be endearing, relying too much on strange vocal tics and bewildered facial expressions. Depp’s offbeat, oblivious charm could have been perfect for the character, but neither the actor nor the crew behind Mortdecai knew how to finesse Depp’s jaunty personality to suit the role.
In one of the film’s more tired recurring attempts at coaxing laughs, Johanna coughs up any time her husband plants a kiss, as his moustache revolts her. That upper lip denial and coughing spurs a gag reflex within him. Appropriately, Mortdecai (the film) has a gag reflex of sorts, since so many of the running gags resist our laughter and amusement. Koepp’s misfire is over-lit, over-acted by Depp and overlong, with many convoluted subplots rearing their heads in the final third. Given the talent involved in front of the camera, it is also deeply underwhelming, even by January’s already chilly standards.
Shrill, stupid and often sexist, Mortdecai sinks due to an embarrassingly overwrought turn from Johnny Depp.