To paraphrase a line from the seminal The Sound of Music, “How do you solve a problem like Johnny Depp?” In fact, the next verse in said song, “How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?” is equally appropriate, and concerning. For nearly 30 years, the international icon has been plying his acting trade to a beatbox only he is hip to. Sometimes, his choices are inspired; see Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas for clear examples. On other occasions, the parts he’s picked have lead to confusion (The Lone Ranger, Dark Shadows) or even total crap (The Tourist and Transcendence).
Mortdecai will only add fuel to this frequently debated conundrum. There is no denying Depp’s talent. He can take a clever make-up job and some equally unique dialogue and come out with a one-of-a-kind character, as he did in Alice in Wonderland and the The Pirates of the Caribbean series. Still, there are those who believe that, at 52, Depp has decided to rely on quirk instead of hard work to continue his creative success. Sadly, said strategy really hasn’t succeeded, Mortdecai being the latest example of a good idea done a disservice by a lack of inspiration. This film clearly wants to channel Blake Edwards era slapstick farce, but it ends up being an uneven, uneventful misfire.
Considering the main character, Charlie Mortdecai, this is both understandable and unfortunate. As an art dealer with the heart of a huckster, a failing marriage to a ice queen beauty (Gwyneth Paltrow), a rivalry with an ex-college roommate who is currently a police inspector (Ewan McGregor) and a faithful manservant who can best be called a Caucasian Kato (Paul Bettany), you’d think Depp would have more than enough to work with. And, indeed, he’s all eccentricities and twee line reads.
Sadly, however, instead of an inspired choice behind the camera, David Koepp (Premium Rush, Stir of Echoes, and Secret Window) helms this humorless Hellsapoppin’ with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Showing little ability at juggling the farcical with the serious, we wind up with a plot that plods along, stopping every so often for American Depp to do his best stiff upper lipped Brit routine. McGregor’s Inspector Martland seeks Mortdecai’s help when a famous Goya painting is stolen. To make matters even more intriguing, the canvas supposedly has the combination to a safe filled with Nazi gold scrawled across the back.
This is a boon for Mortdecai, considering his troubled nuptials (his wife gags at the mere sight of his moustache) and borderline bankrupt business dealings. While Bettany’s Jock Strapp (apparently, author of the source material, Kyril Bonfiglioli, likes sixth grade witticisms) keeps his employer safe, Mortdecai runs around cluelessly, is kidnapped by baddies, and ends up having to deal with perhaps the most villainous of all individuals: Americans (including Jeff Goldblum and Olivia Munn). The plot is really a red herring, a chance to place Mortdecai is several carefully choreographed situations where slapstick and/or silliness ensues. When Peter Sellers executed something similar, it was brilliant. Here, it’s just hokey.
That’s because Mortdecai is a comedy without real jokes. There’s no set-up and punchline. Instead, when Paltrow gags after kissing Depp, and he in turn resorts to “sympathy” retching, we’re supposed to chuckle at the absurdity of it all. But there’s a fine line between ridiculous and stupid, and this movie crosses it again and again and again. A sexually agressive nymphomaniac? You don’t say. An old British coot acting aged and incompetent? What? Instead of saying clever things, Charlie Mortdecai says things cleverly — and that’s the problem. Those who’ve accused Depp of letting his make-up and wardrobe do the acting will surely see something similar going on here.
Perhaps the bigger problem though is that Mortdecai is a “veddy British” comedy pitched by a bunch of Americans. Koepp, Depp, and Paltrow have quite the résumés, but that doesn’t mean they can make Monty Python. Substitute Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Rosumand Pike and then you’re talking farce. Indeed, the whole experience of Mortdecai feels slightly out of sync, as if someone stepped in during the script writing process and reprogrammed part of the narrative to be less wild and more weird. The film is never dark nor daring enough to challenge its viewers. Instead, it spoon-feeds most of its satire, rendering it all inert.
Besides, Depp is indeed no Peter Sellers. The noted British thespian was a true chameleon, capable of wholly losing himself in a role. Depp doesn’t do that. Instead, he’s like Tom Cruise with a love of loud costumes, a recognizable superstar who slums within certain eclectic idioms in order to prove himself a terrific actor. Sometimes, it works; there are times when it succeeds even in spite of itself. By contrast, Mortdecai himself is a better poster image than performance. The twirled ends of Depp’s facial hair are often more compelling than anything he is doing otherwise. For those looking to question the actor’s current status and global bankability, Mortdecai will be another fevered talking point. It will also probably be a big hit in Belgium.
Until he proves that he is box office poison both here and abroad, Depp will continue to crank out the questionable choices — and why not? For every failure, there’s a billion dollar pirate franchise ready to welcome him back with parrot-festooned arms. Maybe he’s not trying anymore. Mortdecai doesn’t alter this opinion; it just argues that, in the right hands, with the right script, Depp would have another winner under his belt, not a noble failure.