It only takes the first few seconds of Mortdecai to realize that the movie that’s going to follow will be an unmitigated disaster. Considering that it wasn’t screened in advance of its release for critics – a sure sign of embarrassment on the part of the studio that made it – I wondered how far the executives at Lionsgate in the States even got before giving up on the project entirely. I’m guessing most people in the company probably didn’t bother to sit through the whole thing unless they absolutely had to.
It’s an unworkable script based on a somewhat forgotten about series of British novels from the early 70s that read as being patently unfilmable and now stars American actors who can only do fey aristocratic stereotypes. I guess it’s supposed to be a comedy, but during the Thursday night showing I watched with a paying audience, even forced laughter was hard to come by. Entire stretches would go by with silence so deafening that a pin drop probably would have damaged everyone’s eardrums from shock.
Johnny Depp – sporting a hideous handlebar moustache and an even worse British affectation – plays the eponymous Charlie Mortdecai, a wealthy, aristocratic art dealer and accomplished fence of stolen goods that’s on the brink of insolvency thanks to some poor business decisions. He sees a way out of his personal and tax debts by agreeing to help a thoroughly square MI5 detective (Ewan McGregor) track down a long thought mythical painting by Francisco Goya painting. The painting, which isn’t only rare but also allegedly has Swiss bank account numbers on the back, is sought after by a terrorist (Jonny Pasvolsky) who wants to use the profits to fund attacks, a Russian mobster (Ulrich Thomsen) who Mortdecai screwed over, and a boorish Los Angelian (Jeff Goldblum) with a nymphomaniac daughter (Olivia Munn). Aiding Charlie in his quest is his frustrated wife (Gweneth Paltrow) and his trusty henchman (Paul Bettany).
An adaptation of Kyril Bonfiglioli’s somewhat satirical James Bond parody Don’t Point That Thing at Me from 1972, the script comes courtesy of Eric Aronson, who previously has only had one other credited gig: the Lance Bass/Joey Fatone rom-com On the Line from 2001. Every major problem with Mortdecai starts at the script level. Aronson never gives his actors anything funny to say, and tonally the material can never decide between slapstick, satire, parody, or anarchy. What’s worse is that the hodgepodge of comedic styles is clearly being presented by someone who can’t understand a single one of them. It reads as if a bunch of North Americans wanted to remake MacGruber in Britain or create a new Austin Powers type franchise, but with a wealth of pretension and no clue what a comedy is. It also can’t keep its basic story logic straight, often hinging on characters whose allegiances will turn before they’re even fully introduced, the villains are nonthreatening, unfunny, and pointless, and it’s frustrating that the film’s MacGuffin would have been destroyed hundreds of times over given what happens to its hiding space for the length of the film. At least the film thinks that both its audience AND its characters are a bunch of idiots.
That’s probably why the decision was made to bring in David Koepp to direct-slash-salvage whatever could be gotten out of this mess of a screenplay that should have never been used. Koepp previously worked with Depp on the Stephen King adaptation Secret Window and most recently directed the underrated and really fun Premium Rush. He also happens to be the guy who wrote the scripts for Jurassic Park, Carlito’s Way, and Mission: Impossible. Koepp is a good filmmaker, but a better writer, so maybe the mentality here was that hiring a director that was also a writer would allow for rewrites in the moment and on the fly. That’s not what happens here. Koepp can frame things in a good looking manner, and the film’s more inspired moments of action and pratfalls hint at something that could have been better and not as dire as the final results. He’s forced to keep cutting away to stand alone gags in the desperate hope that maybe something funnier is happening away from the actual story. He’s not wrong. The funniest scene in the film and only genuine belly laugh comes from a flashback to Mortdecai’s university days, and even that scene will work best when glimpsed on YouTube in a few years and out of context from the film as a whole. The best plan of attack would have been to just let Koepp rewrite the whole thing from top to bottom. That would be logical. Precisely nothing about Mortdecai is logical or novel.
So Koepp can’t really play his film for laughs or for the plot – which manages to outsmart itself to a degree where a four year old could pick out the holes – and he just settles for the only thing he can do: let his cast run roughshod over the material. It’s the work of someone who spent a lot of time looking through the camera to set things up, but probably only shrugged whenever someone approached him with a question. And when your leading man is Johnny Depp, who is inching ever closer to becoming such a soul sucking parody of his own persona that he could become a black hole collapsing in on himself, that’s the worst directorial decision that can be made.
Depp moans, groans, and stumbles through his performance that’s akin to watching the scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day off where Edie McClurg is trying to impersonate Jeffrey Jones on the phone strung out to 115 minutes only with a tenth of the laughs. Depp has good comedic timing, and a couple of choice barbs land not because they’re particularly funny, but because he knows how to hit a mark. For the most part, though, this is Depp firmly on autopilot, allowing his facial hair (the jokes from which are tiresome immediately and make the half of the gags that don’t involve genital mutilation) and his wacky voice do all the work for him. You don’t want to spend time with Charlie Mortdecai because he isn’t a funny character. This character is too shitty for open mic night in the Catskills. You want to throw the guy down a flight of stairs immediately and watch him bleed out. His charm isn’t misplaced. It’s non-existent. The equal can be said of Paltrow, except she’s worse because unlike Depp, she doesn’t even have a perfunctory understanding of comedic timing for something that’s supposed to be zany. They have great chemistry together, but only because Paltrow can only follow Depp’s lead.
Thankfully, McGregor and Bettany are on hand to not exactly be hilarious, but to give a concentrated effort and elicit the smiles the rest of the film is sorely lacking. McGregor walks a nice line between sympathetic and sleazy with his swaggering G-man routine, and his crush on Mortdecai’s wife showcases McGregor’s comedic chops. McGregor has been quietly breaking away from the roles he normally gets offered, and hopefully people start taking notice of his versatility soon (and in better films).
As for Bettany, he’s a smart actor who can bounce between refinement and thuggery quite brilliantly, and he’s the only actor here that’s firmly able to wrestle control away from Depp in their scenes together. Putting on a thick cockney accent and hulking up to a great degree, Bettany stays consistent in his work, and that’s probably because he’s only a blunt object with an insatiable and unexpected sexual appetite. A film about McGregor or Bettany’s characters would have been vastly more interesting. They bring layers that Depp and Paltrow can’t be bothered with.
Actually, maybe firing Depp and having McGregor or Bettany play the lead in a less goofy fashion would have made for a more entertaining film. That and actually letting Koepp try to make something out of the material instead of turning him into a pointless hired gun could have saved everything. As it stands, Mortdecai is every bit as insufferable as its deathly pre-release buzz has suggested it is.