MORTDECAI Review

Remember that one time when Johnny Depp was going to star in Wes Anderson's (now Oscar nominated) The Grand Budapest Hotel? Can you guess what role Depp might have likely ended up playing? Given the headlines that went out shortly after Moonrise Kingdom became a bigger hit than expected in the summer of 2012 I would venture to assume it would have been the lead of M. Gustave. A role that, thankfully, ended up going to Ralph Fiennes. Fiennes is brilliant in a way and to an extent we've never seen him before in that role, but if you're still upset that we haven't seen the fruition of an Anderson and Depp collaboration, or more specifically, what it might have been like had Depp taken on the lead role in The Grand Budapest you might now be in luck as Captain Jack himself has presented us with Mortdecai. With a screenplay from Eric Aronson whose only other credit includes 2001's On the Line (and if you're not of my generation and don't immediately recognize that title, it's the romantic comedy that starred Lance Bass from Nsync) and based on the first novel in the Mortdecai series by novelist Kyril Bonfiglioli titled Don't Point that Thing at Me, Depp has essentially brought what his interpretation of Gustave might have looked like in a film that feels like a Wes Anderson movie as it were directed by a more conventional filmmaker. This is nothing against Mortdecai director David Koepp who is known more for his screenwriting credits that include several Spielberg films and large property adaptations than his directing work. Still, Koepp has directed his fair share of features as well including the solid Stephen King adaptation and first, post-Pirates movie for Depp, Secret Window, as well as the likes of underrated little gems such as Ghost Town and Premium Rush that he also penned the scripts for. It's hard to tell if it's because Koepp doesn't seem to have had a hand in the development of the screenplay here that he isn't as passionate about the material, but there is definitely something lacking as far as the soul of this movie is concerned.

Johanna (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Martland (Ewan McGregor) are shocked by what they find in America...
Charlie Mortdecai (Depp) is an aristocratic art dealer specializing in stolen art always accompanied on his adventures by his manservant Jock (Paul Bettany). Upon our initial meeting with him, Mortdecai is dealing with something of an international terrorist who is looking to seek revenge on the debonair dealer for pulling one over on him in a previous deal. After narrowly escaping and retreating to his extravagant mansion where his "impossibly leggy wife" Johanna (Gwyneth Paltrow) becomes completely opposed to his newly minted mustache Mortdecai is presented with the conflict of owing the government a considerable amount in back taxes. Just as these consequences begin to weigh on Mortdecai though he is conveniently presented with a way to smooth things over via long-time acquaintance and Mi5 agent Martland (Ewan McGregor). You see, Martland is on an investigation for the murder of an art restorer whose current project was stolen in the dead of night. Not only does Martland need to figure out who the killer is, but he needs to recover the priceless artwork that has been stolen. He is reluctant to go to the dim-witted Mortdecai for help given he's always been envious of his wife, but desperate times call for desperate measures. This leads to Mortdecai and Jock traveling the world, following clue after clue in hopes of tracking down not only the painting, but the rumored codes written on the back that would lead them to a lost bank account filled with Nazi gold. In these adventures, in which Mortdecai is only armed with his, "good looks and special charm," he and Jock run into angry Russian mobsters (Ulrich Thomsen), rival art thief Emil (Jonny Pasvolsky) as well as wealthy American art dealer Krampf (Jeff Goldblum) and his nymphomaniac daughter Georgina (Olivia Munn). The proceedings are not the issue here though as there is plenty of stuff going on in the caper to keep the pacing brisk and the runtime on the shorter side of things. What is lacking is some sense of vibrancy, some sense of investment to make the audience feel we're on the case with the characters, but rather it ends up feeling as hollow as Mortdecai's head.

Mortdecai feels like a movie stuffed with possibilities stuck searching for the right way to let them all out. As if it has so much to say and a definitive stance on how it should be said without gracefully being able to actually express a true representation of itself. This is sad, really, as there does indeed seem to be much potential here, but ultimately it is trying so hard that nothing about it feels natural or of the ease in which inherently funny comedy should come and instead makes us feel like it's forcing us to have a good time. This is most true when discussing the performance of Depp. As much as the movie overall feels like the poor mans Wes Anderson there are moments when it almost feels as if Depp is trying to do his own rendition of Austin Powers. The thing about Mike Myers British super sleuth though was that he emitted the lovable idiot persona with such care, such measure that the act never felt like an act, it never seemed disingenuous whereas with Depp's Mortdecai you can feel the self-satisfaction and even the relief in that he's successfully created another character interpretation to add to his roster. Maybe it is that we now have Depp-fatigue and that the unexpected is now the very thing we expect from the actor, but either way nothing about his performance comes off as natural or of a second nature despite Depp giving it his all and searching for comedy in every facial expression. That said, I didn't find the film completely unfunny as much of the sometimes vulgar dialogue that accompanies some rather gross out gags contradicts the high societal facade the film carries to more humorous effect. I imagine much of the charm of the consciously precise dialogue that is spewed here comes from the original novels as it turns discussions between what are perceived to be snooty art historians into ones featuring the classiest of fart jokes, but what ultimately saves the film from completely tanking is the willingness of the studio to go with an R-rating. While it is not hard to see where this film could have been cut down to a PG-13 it wears its slight vulgarities on its shoulder as something intrinsically in the culture of the people on screen and thus serves as the only effortless charm that comes through in the whole picture, well, that and Bettany's performance.

...as Mortdecai (Johnny Depp) is fooling around with a well-known Nympho (Olivia Munn).
Overall, I really didn't mind the film as it certainly isn't as bad as some are making it out to be, though it admittedly doesn't execute itself to the full potential it holds. It is good-natured and has a throwback, cartoonish tone that emphasizes a kind of hyper-realized world these eccentric caricatures exist in. It also has plenty of visual sight gags and physical comedy gags that it asks the audience to keep up with which is actually something of a fun game rather than feeling like the chore it could have been. Everyone here seems to be game as well if not a little lost. While Depp's performance feels rather desperate for laughs there is no denying he is committed and who knows, maybe his performance might have come across all the more funny or even as charming as it claims to be were the other actors better able to work with it. Bettany's Cockney manservant who is both loyal to and equally irritated by the egotistical Mortdecai is the only one that gels with Depp's performance in a way that elicits any real laughs whereas Mortdecai's relationship with his wife is so distant we begin to question what ulterior motives there might have been for the two to get married. This doesn't mean Paltrow isn't up for the task of playing the sly and more intelligent to her more celebrated husband, but there is nothing between them to suggest a romance besides the running gag of a gag reflex that only reinforces the idea Paltrow's superior Johanna is only using her clueless husband. The same could be said for McGregor who typically signals some kind of quality in a film, but is given so little to do here he seems bored by even being a part of the love triangle he's supposed to be participating in. It doesn't necessarily seem McGregor and Paltrow don't know what to do opposite Depp's goofily configured persona, but they are seemingly trying to no promising result. As for Goldblum and Munn they try by going all in and though their screen time is limited they easily create the most effortlessly entertaining section of the film as both attempt to match the peculiarities of Depp's character with their own. Mortdecai isn't a bad movie, just a misguided one and while it makes a few too many missteps it is easy to see the ambition and wish they might be given another shot at this despite the fact it will never happen.