Broad comedies starring A-list celebrities can either go into the category of “Wow, that was awesome,” or the one saying “Oh, jeez what were they thinking.” With the initial trailer for David Koepp’s Mortdecai, I was hopeful it was going to be the former, but the second trailer made me fear it was going to be the latter. You’ve got Johnny Depp mincing around being as stereotypically English as a human can possibly be, so for the movie to work, a sort of caper/detective story, it’d have to be pretty well judged if it’s going to work. And while it doesn’t work perfectly, I was surprised that the mincing actually became pretty funny after awhile.
Based on the comic novel series by English art-dealer, actor, sci-fi editor, and champion swordsman Kyril Bonfiglioli, Mortdecai is strange sort of throwback to the kind of storytelling they did quite a lot of in the 1960s, a farcical high-society comedy masquerading as a caper film. It’s certainly difficult to attempt a story like this keeping all the nuances while still setting it in modern day. There’s really very little modern about the people in it; in fact, they’re basically the stuffiest upper-class twits you’d ever care to see, the kind of folks would make the Monty Python lads say, “Wowzers, that’s pretty over the top.”
The story follows wealthy art dealer Charlie Mortdecai (Depp), who is not so much wealthy anymore as he is living like he is. He’s old money, from a long line of Mortdecais, but he owes the British government an exorbitant amount of money, and as much as he attempts to rip people off by over-selling them art, he’s pretty much flat broke. His marriage to his with-it wife Johanna (Gwyneth Paltrow) is getting rocky because of the finances, and because he’s grown a silly mustache. When an art restorer working on a priceless Goya painting gets stolen, Mortdecai is called in to help by his former school chum and continued romantic rival Martland (Ewan McGregor) of MI-5 to help find the missing painting. This takes him all over both the underground art world and the actual world, where his unbelievable prissiness would have surely gotten him killed if not for his long-suffering, ever-faithful, seemingly indestructible manservant Jock (Paul Bettany), who has a penchant for sleeping with women everywhere he goes and sounds like he belongs in a Guy Ritchie film.
Mortdecai hearkens back to the zany madcap movies that went for big, absurd laughs and weren’t always the most successful at them. Depp spends most of the movie mugging for the camera, which is something he tends to do when playing the ever-sillier array of characters on his resume. Say what you will about Depp these days, he does certainly have good comic timing and the ability to play characters who are, at once, out of their depth but also totally unscrupulous. Mortdecai is an anti-hero, and not really a particularly likable one, but there is a certain charm to him. Bettany really shines, though, playing the muscly thug whose whole being seems in sharp contrast to Mortdecai’s, but who is still loyal to a fault. McGregor also had his fair share of laughs through his hopeless puppy-dog devotion to Paltrow’s character and his distaste for Mortdecai in all ways. Other cast members, including Jeff Goldblum and Olivia Munn, are pretty much wasted, however.
While certainly not a work of comic-action genius — in fact most of the action scenes (the few that there are) aren’t particularly well done or choreographed really at all — I was surprised at how well it all seemed to hang together, how much the cast got the tone Koepp was trying to strike, and that I laughed as much as I did, usually at something completely pompous and out of touch said by Mortdecai himself. He’s a character of a bygone age of literature and film plopped down into this time and place but with no realization that anything is different. All in all, you could certainly do a lot worse for a January release.