Mortdecai is goofy, over-the-top fun thanks to Johnny Depp adding yet another memorably outrageous character to the long line of memorable film personas he’s brought to life over the years and to director David Koepp’s efforts to keep the running gags and physical comedy rolling at a good clip.
Is it “must see at the movies” material? Hardly. But far, far worse in terms of comedy has found its way to the multiplexes of late, and so if you’re looking for something light and funny at the box office right now, as opposed to all those Oscar-nominated films that all look so serious, then Mortdecai might just be your perfect cup of English tea.
For Lord Charlie Mortdecai (Depp), aristocrat, bon vivant, and occasional art swindler, things have been just dreadfully awful of late. What’s most inconvenient at the moment is that he and his beautiful wife Johanna (Gwyneth Paltrow) owe over eight million pounds in back taxes to Her Majesty’s government, and that all that crushing debt threatens the existence of his ancestral manor and extravagant way of life.
While trying to figure out a way out of this financial crisis, Charlie’s old Oxford chum/rival Alistair Martland (Ewan McGregor), an officer in Britain’s MI5, comes to him looking for help with a case involving a notorious anarchist and revolutionary named Strago (Jonny Pasvolsky) and a legendary missing masterwork by 18th Century Spanish master painter Francisco Goya. Ordinarily, chasing down such a piece would be tremendous fun for Charlie, not to mention potentially lucrative, but there is the matter of Martland’s annoying ongoing romantic interest in Johanna, and the fact that Martland is, in fact, competent, successful, and good-looking.
And to top all this misery off, Johanna simply HATES the new moustache that Charlie has so painstakingly grown in honor of the tradition that every Mortdecai man in his line has at some point been a part of in their lifetimes. Her rather visceral reaction to it (and everyone else’s distaste for it, really) is terribly depressing, especially since Charlie has so grown rather attached to it … beyond the physiological sense, of course.
Beset with all these troubles, Charlie sets off on the trail of Strago and the Goya, his ever faithful manservant/driver/bodyguard Jock Strapp (Paul Bettany) at his side keeping him from harm at just about every turn, as Lord Mortdecai is, well, rather hopeless when it comes to avoiding danger. His travels in search of the missing masterwork will take him to Paris, Moscow, and even ‘the colonies’ — namely Los Angeles — and bring him in contact with Russian mobsters, American billionaires, and tantalizing debutantes like Georgina Krampf (Olivia Munn), rumored to be a nymphomaniac (gasp!). Meanwhile Johanna, by far the cleverer of the Mortdecais, will use her own resources and charms to track down the Goya, with far more useful results.
Based on Don’t Point That Thing at Me, the first of a trilogy of novels featuring the misadventures of the Mortdecais by the late Kyril Bonfiglioli, Mortdecai is the kind of silly film fluff that charms almost in spite of itself. Yes, it’s relentlessly British, with a great deal of its humor deriving from lampooning the idle rich and their eccentric and narcissistic preoccupations, as well as their snobbery towards most things American. If those sorts of subjects and the oh-so-trying lives of the rich and snobby generally leave you cold, then a good deal of Mortdecai‘s 107 minute running time might leave you wanting nothing more than to punch Johnny Depp in real life given the opportunity, or in lieu of punching him punch whoever it was that dragged you to see the film in the first place.
But if you do happen to enjoy this style of comedy, if you have fond memories of Peter Sellers bumbling about in Blake Edwards’ immortal Pink Panther films of the 70’s, for example, or if you’re a fan of Depp’s when he’s at his most madcap, then there are more than a few bits and running jokes here that will give you a giggle or two. Admittedly, one of the funniest involves the ridiculous ease with which the stoic and somewhat brutish Jock gets the ladies, and Charlie’s perpetual befuddlement with it. For many film goers, it may be the first time they see Paul Bettany in this kind of role — he seems to be channeling his inner Vinnie Jones here — and it works to great comedic effect. Director David Koepp (Premium Rush, Stir of Echoes) seems to have a knack for the sort of staging and timing that’s necessary to make this kind of action-comedy work: the set pieces are fun to watch play out, and the whole film moves at a brisk, breezy pace. Most importantly, he’s able to make it all feel like a cohesive caper film, rather than a series of comic sketches and scenes, the pitfall that so many feature film comedies fall into these days.
At the heart of things here is, of course, Depp and his portrayal of Lord Mortdecai, a guy who by all rights should be really easy to despise. It should be absolutely unfathomable why such a man could win the heart of the beautiful Johanna when she could easily have the dashing and capable Alistair, or retain the unwavering loyalty of Jock, whose service to Charlie has literally done him bodily harm on several occasions. It seems to be Depp’s goal from the outset to make the decadent, somewhat delusional, and often detached from reality Charlie someone you find yourself rooting for, and as with every role he takes on, he gives it his all. What may surprise you is just how well it works — yes, Charlie’s a buffoon, but Depp makes him a loveable one, and that goes a long way toward making what could have been an incredibly stupid movie far more tolerable.
If nothing else, then Mortdecai, given the opportunity, should help push away any lingering memories of the last time Depp and Bettany starred in a film together, 2014’s Transcendence, which generally bored audiences to tears on its way to being one of the year’s biggest bombs. This lighthearted and goofy film, full as it is with over-the-top performances, witty banter, innuendo and cheeky humor, is about as polar opposite as is possible from that muddled mess of a film, which seemingly couldn’t decide what it wanted its viewers to come away with feeling.
There’s absolutely no doubt what cast and crew want audiences to feel coming out of Mortdecai: total bemusement. And, perhaps, the desire to grow a ridiculous moustache.
Score: 2.5 out of 5
Starring Johnny Depp, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ewan McGregor, Olivia Munn, with Jeff Goldblum, and Paul Bettany. Directed by David Koepp.
Running Time: 107 minutes
Rated R for some language and sexual material.