Wednesday, January 28, 2015
Dir. David Koepp
2.5 out of 5
Ever since the first images of a mustachioed Johnny Depp began appearing in bus shelters across the country, the comedic heist film Mortdecai has been met with the same type of anticipation reserved for a plague of locusts. Here was a film that represented the proverbial fish in the barrel, except you could imagine that the fish were already belly-up, and the barrel pre-drilled with bullet holes. It was to be Depp's Norbit, Depp's Love Guru - the film that would effectively erase the career of a once-bright talent out of existence.
Shockingly, however, I do not come to bury Mortdecai; in fact, I come to praise it. Sort of. Depp plays Charlie Mortdecai - an unscrupulous art dealer, unsuccessful womanizer, and blatant tax cheat - in a globe-trotting farce that's ostensibly about locating a stolen Goya but in reality is about some kind of time-traveling dandy or perhaps an alien visitor who is simultaneously bemused, disgusted, and frightened by our modern world. He's joined in pursuit of the canvas (which has its own convoluted backstory involving royal skulduggery and hidden Nazi gold) by his simple-minded manservant Jock (Paul Bettany), his far more competent wife Johanna (Gwyneth Paltrow), and the MI5 inspector (Ewan McGregor) who still carries a torch for her, not to mention various criminals and gangsters and the most disreputable agents of all - American art collectors.
Mortdecai's bizarre preoccupation with penniless aristocracy and foppish decadence defy 21st-century comprehension in a way that makes the movie seem almost admirable. Its idiocy is neither cloying nor mean, but defiant, much like director David Koepp's previous film, the similarly brainless and brassy Premium Rush. And Depp is convincingly unconvincing as a childish playboy; just as Mortdecai's opening narration boasts of his intellectual, physical, and sexual prowess, Depp quickly reveals him to be a simpering, buffoonish fraidy-cat who is generally mortified by human sexuality, with his consistent dog-like moans of discomfort serving as a reminder of his arrested emotional state.
Make no mistake - Mortdecai is certainly no underrated gem, with large chunks of screentime devoted to its dull and nonsensical caper plot populated with faceless villains and predictable story beats. Its general style of comedy is also broader than I am suggesting, though it does have its offbeat moments of inspiration (its preoccupation with mustaches surprisingly gives rise to the film's best running gags). Yet while Depp's previous bombs exploited his quirkiness in desperate and misguided attempts to please, there's something attractive about the tug-of-war going on in Mortdecai, a film both revels in and is embarrassed by its most off-putting extremes.