There’s just never enough ham on the buffet for Johnny Depp these days. Unfathomable as it seems for anyone who grew up watching him in the ’90s—with his indelible performances in Cry-Baby, Ed Wood, Dead Man, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas—Hollywood’s once most dependable weirdo has gone on to become something of a laughingstock—and not by comedic design. Though his work with Tim Burton maintains a degree of authentic strangeness, Depp’s post-Pirates of the Caribbean resume has otherwise seen this former eccentric calcify into rote foolishness and diminishing returns. (It’s no mean feat to be the worst thing in Tusk, a Kevin Smith movie.) A man’s gotta stay in fancy scarves and bracelets, sure—but at what cost?
And so we have Mortdecai. Always a better character player than straight man, one can’t blame Depp for wanting to do what he thought might be a Peter Sellers-esque caper, the kind of mid-career jape that’d indulge his good looks and the goofiness he so dearly treasures. Loosely based on English writer Kyril Bonfoglioli’s 1973 novel Don’t Point That Thing At Me (which begat a series), the film is apparently a passion project for director David Koepp, a prolific screenwriter whose work behind the camera (including Secret Window, also with Depp) hasn’t suggested any great affinity with comedy to date. Unfortunately for Mortdecai, it shows.
Things get off to a shaky, though not unpleasant start. After some introductory horseplay in Hong Kong that more or less rips off the opening to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, we find art dealer Charlie Mortdecai (Depp) at his posh English country estate, 8 million pounds in the hole in taxes and lamenting the prospect of selling his “horsey painting” to restore Her Majesty’s favor. Sporting ludicrous ascots, stained teeth, and a toffee-nosed accent that seems to be aping Terry-Thomas, Depp is in Upper-Class Twit of the Year mode here, broadly lampooning the blithe entitlement of his lordship and its attendant class system. (His prole manservant, expertly played by Paul Bettany-as-Jason Statham, is the real brains and brawn.)
There’s a nice enough bit between Depp and Gwyneth Paltrow as Lady Mortdecai, who’s so repulsed by her husband’s proud new Franz Joseph mustache that she gags at his touch, and Ewan McGregor trots out his campy Alec Guinness voice as a chummy M15 agent still in love with Mortdecai’s wife. That it all seems awfully creaky and straight out of a sketch comedy from 1972 isn’t a problem; really, it should be a part of the fun.
Comedy, though, is a tricky art, and ham of this magnitude requires some incredibly skilled cooks. Yet the lackluster script (by Eric Aronson, who brought you Lance Bass’s classic On the Line) and Koepp’s clunky direction don’t have the finesse to properly embellish the scenario. As the narrative bumbles into a mechanical thriller involving a stolen Goya and some Nazi treasure code, the film loses its comedic footing, and everyone involved flails against the mediocre material.
Instead of working as, say, a cheerful Austin Powers-style anachronism, Mortdecai lurches all over the tonal map, with dad jokes, smut, and hard violence all up for grabs. There’s a certain amusing juxtaposition in Mortdecai requesting a herringbone spoon as he’s about to have his wedding tackle tazered by Russian thugs, and a keen sense of irony at play as this affluent clown continually triumphs despite his idiocy. Yet for every agreeable “old bean” ribbing or drawing-room chuckle, there’s a record-scratch moment of contemporary cursing or an embarrassing erection gag that belongs in a mid-tier frat joint. (And while dismantling the logic of these capers is a bore’s playground, it’s worth noting that Swiss banks apparently keep easily accessible online logins for the accounts of long-deceased Nazi commanders—a useful thing to keep in mind, should you stumble upon a rare stolen painting or, you know, a pharaoh’s personal email address.)
Most crucially, Koepp can’t find a comic beat here if he stepped on a rake. The gags are there, and the players are game; it’s the rhythm that’s missing. Mortdecai needs to pop like a Stanley Donen or early Blake Edwards film (or, at the very least, OSS 17), but it isn’t well oiled enough to get there. It doesn’t help that this is also one of the worst-looking movies in recent memory, with some jarringly ghastly globetrotting interludes that would be rejected as in-flight entertainment graphics (and given the airline product placement, possibly were).
As for Depp, he isn’t a comedian with the force of personality essential to carry an undercooked picture on his own; he’s a comedic actor, and a gifted one, but he needs boundaries and astute collaborators to thrive. What begins as a silly showcase for his Anglophilia too often fragments into lazy star-crutches: crazy fingers, eye-popping, drunken rambles; ol’ Captain Jack Sparrow is never far from oozing through his skin. How long can he possibly sustain this routine?
There’s one very funny scene late in the movie, in which Mortdecai, having jet-setted to Los Angeles in pursuit of the painting, checks in at The Standard Hotel on Sunset (we know this because it’s grotesquely shot like a commercial for The Standard Hotel on Sunset). Entering an elevator, he’s suddenly surrounded by a bunch of hipsters and their spectrum of “quirky” facial hair, a sight that Mortdecai, who still refers to America as “the colonies,” can’t seem to process. In that brief, wonderful moment, Depp and Koepp unwittingly expose the blandness of their own endeavor: silly facial hair and affectations simply aren’t enough; in fact, they’re becoming rather ordinary.
Originally published at Movie Mezzanine.