A film review by Craig J. Koban January 30, 2015

MORTDECAI jj
½   

2015, R, 106 mins.

 

Johnny Depp as Charles Mortdecai  /  Olivia Munn as Georgina Krampf  /  Gwyneth Paltrow as Johanna  /  Ewan McGregor as Inspector Martland  /  Jeff Goldblum  /  Paul Bettany as Jock Strapp

Directed by David Koepp  /  Written by Eric Aronson

Relax, everyone.  Take a deep breath.  MORTDECAI is not the soul-crushingly awful comedy that many other critics have been letting on.  

That’s not to say that the adaptation of Kyril Bonfiglioli book anthology (with the wonderful title DON’T POINT THAT THING AT ME) is not a complete and rousing success.  An appreciation of MORTDECAI will largely depend on one’s taste – or tolerance levels – for madcap farce and wanton comedic peculiarity.  Director David Koepp (who made the terribly underrated PREMIUM RUSH and GHOST TOWN) embraces his film’s mostly daft, frequently tasteless, and sometimes hilarious tomfoolery as a globetrotting action/mystery/comedy.  MORTDECAI is like the love child of AUSTIN POWERS and the PINK PANTHER films, but its main problem is that it’s not a consistent laugh riot and it wears out its welcome far longer than it should have.

Koepp does have Johnny Depp, though, as the comedic anchor to the film, and once again the performer shows just how game he is for inspired silliness; he has a self-deprecating manner of making himself look like a weak-willed nincompoop for 90-plus minutes.  Certainly, this is no thespian stretch for the actor, but he’s so damn good playing spineless wimps that are unavoidably endearing that you're willing to forgive him for going to the performance well, so to speak.  He plays the titular character Charlie Mortdecai, a British art dealer that loves his affluent lifestyle and twirled moustache perhaps more than anything else in his life.  Regrettably for him, personal tragedy strikes when he realizes that he’s about to face – gasp! – bankruptcy as he owes the British government millions in back taxes.  A life of poverty does not sit well with the snobby Mortdecai, seeing as he would have to give up his slavish man-servant Jock Strap (played with amusing hedonistic toughness by Paul Bettany), but it would arguably make his wife Joanna (Gwyneth Paltrow) even more upset.  Outside of the prospect of facing financial implosion, she really, really hates her husband’s new stache.

 

 

Fate, alas, steps in for poor Mortdecai in the form of MI5 Inspector Martland (Ewan McGregor), a former college friend of Mortdecai and Joanna that still pines to be with the latter on a daily basis.  He offers the hapless Mortdecai and exit strategy from his economic woes: Help the government find a priceless missing Goya painting (which may or may not have a secret Nazi code inscribed on the back that would give clues to the whereabouts of a safe filled with gold) and his indiscretions will be wiped clean.  Hardly the adventuring and spy type, the perpetually meager Mortdecai begrudgingly accepts the offer and begins a country-spanning search (from London to Moscow to L.A.) for the painting, which leads to the poor sap being abducted multiple times, shot at, beaten up, and generally abused in one form or another.  While Mordtecai tries to find the long lost painting, Martland decides to take his unique opportunity to get cozy with Joanna, much to Mortdecai’s chagrin.

It takes a special brand of dedicated performer to make this type of material work.  Too much campy showboating would be a teeth-grating endurance test, but too much solemnity would have made the film’s absurdist gags fall flat.  Depp, as stated, can play bumbling boobs in his sleep, but there’s no denying that the actor has a limitless capacity to find ridiculous merriment in the most innocuous of moments.  Mortdecai is a foppish cartoon character brought lovingly to life by the actor; he makes some of the film’s more laborious and unfunny pratfalls seem fresh.  Depp is flanked by a solid supporting cast that seems to understand the type of film they’ve gotten themselves into.  Paltrow is understated, droll and effective as a comic foil to Depp’s affectionately overbearing hamminess, and McGregor shows that he has an underrated faculty for comedy that many of his past film roles have not exploited; he has fun playing his determined and shrewd inspector whose biggest failing is the dopey-eyed infatuation he has with Joanna.  Bettany also delivers ample chuckles, especially for multiple running gags involving him being accidentally shot by his employer (followed by him nonchalantly brushing it off) and his ability to bed just about any unattainably gorgeous woman that he sets his eyes on. 

Koepp has the requisite skills as well to pull off many hilarious slapstick set pieces, not to mention that he also makes an unreservedly good-looking European travelogue picture.  The screenplay by Eric Aronson has a nimble footed confidence in finding increasingly novel ways of exploiting Mortdecai’s weasel-like nature to proper effect and Jock’s steadfast dedication to rescuing his boss, even if it means frequent personal injury in the process.  Part of the problem, though, is that MORTDECAI relies a bit too heavily on its main stars for the heavy lifting in the laughs department.  Many other actors pop up  – like Jeff Goldblum playing a scumbag art dealer and Olivia Mum playing his nymphomaniac daughter  - and then disappear in the film so quickly that you're left wondering why they even agreed to be in the film in the first place.  Too much of the time, MORTDECAI sets ups potentially engaging plot segues and then does very little to pay them off in any meaningful or satisfying manner. 

Pacing also seems to dog MORTDECAI throughout.  Farces like this depend on a sense of breeziness and sure-fire whimsy, but much of these traits are lost in the shuffle because of the film’s unnecessarily long running time.  MORTDECAI really has no business being longer than a lean and trim 90 minutes, but Koepp lets the film gestate about 10-15 minutes longer than he should have, which subverts the comic momentum that it was generating.  In the end, the film is perhaps too densely plotted for its own good, especially considering that it’s ultimately about the world of art forgery; there’s only so much ample comic mileage that can be pilfered from that.

MORTDECAI is an awfully strange comedy, to be sure.  I liked its oddity.  So many comedies today rely on puerile gross-out gags and bodily functions to elicit cheap laughs, so it’s kind of relieving to see a throwback effort like MORTDECAI that tries to entertain based on its preposterous caper shenanigans.  The film contains multiple chuckles and a few laugh-out-loud moments – largely thanks to Depp’s handling of his character and the material – but ultimately there are more jokes in MORTDECAI that fall resoundingly flat than ones that successfully work.  MORTDECAI is more of an undisciplined comedy than a morosely awful one.  

It certainly didn’t totally prompt my sympathetic gag reflex.  

Okay, maybe just a bit. 

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