But first, Johnny Depp.
I’ve mentioned it before and I’ll mention it again. I love Johnny Depp. Whether he’s a swashbuckling pirate or a tormented writer, he’s managed to bring his own personality into a variety of roles. However, it isn’t a secret that he’s been attaching himself to some pretty subpar roles of late. The Lone Ranger (a bit underrated, but still not good), Dark Shadows, and Transcendence are among those roles. Lately, he’s been a one-scene wonder, sneaking nice cameos into 21 Jump Street, Into the Woods, and a 2014 film that I won’t spoil just in case you haven’t seen it (although his role in that one was more secretive than a cameo). Depp received a lot of hate for his role in Into the Woods, which was deliberately creepy and unapologetically Depp-y, and I still defend it. He was, in my opinion, one of the best parts of the movie. In the case of Mortdecai, I am troubled to report that Depp lost even me.
It’s a real bummer, because every time I watched the trailer, I laughed. It’s a good trailer, but it does capture the movie’s best and funniest moments. Those funny moments don’t arrive until the third act, which doesn’t come soon enough in a film that runs under two hours but feels like three. Scene one doesn’t hesitate to introduce us to our main character, Charlie Mortdecai (Depp), a suave and somewhat shady art dealer who takes great pride in his recently grown curled mustache. When the film opens, he’s in the middle of a deal, trading a piece of art (a vase, in this case) for cash. But things quickly escalate as the buyer reveals things about Mortdecai’s character, thus telling us, the audience, that he is, as I said before, shady. After this character introductory sequence, the plot kicks in and it’s… quite preposterous.
Inspector Alistair Martland (Ewan McGregor), who has a history with Charlie and Johanna (his wife, played by Gwyneth Paltrow), asks him to help solve a case of theft and murder. A painting has been stolen and the painter shot with an arrow. From there, the film follows Charlie as he scurries about, trying to detect the root of the situation, while providing the usual Depp-isms that we’ve grown accustomed to over the years. The only thing is, Depp doesn’t really find footing as Charlie Mortdecai. Essentially, he is playing Johnny Depp, in a very exaggerated and egotistical kind of way. Sometimes it works to the film’s advantage. Most times it doesn’t. I, like many others, have been waiting for Johnny Depp to play a normal character again (like in Secret Window), as opposed to having his face painted white in every role. I thought I was getting that with Transcendence, but he ended up voicing a computer. I thought I was getting it here, and I didn’t. He’s basically playing a cartoonized version of an assortment of his past characters. It’s not as funny as one would hope. There were many times during my screening that Depp seemed to be trying, but no one was laughing. I wasn’t either. I felt embarrassed for him.
As Mr. Depp (whoops, sorry, Charlie Mortdecai) runs around in search of the painting and the culprit, we have to keep in mind that there is a commendable filmmaker behind the camera. Director David Koepp isn’t just some first timer trying to mold a solid and funny first feature. This is the man who has directed Premium Rush (which I liked) and Secret Window (one of my favorite Stephen King adaptations, also starring Johnny Depp). If you aren’t familiar with his directorial credits, then check out his writing credits. Jurassic Park, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible, Panic Room, Spider-Man, War of the Worlds, Angels & Demons, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, among others. Are you kidding me? That list is unbelievably impressive.
Koepp didn’t have a hand in the writing for Mortdecai, so maybe that explains why the script is so inconsistent and shaky, but I do have to give him some credit for his direction. This is his sixth feature as a director, and it’s the first that he hasn’t written himself. That certainly explains a lot, as he has to take someone else’s vision as opposed to using his own that he developed during the writing process. It’s probably tough, but his direction isn’t terrible. The movie is stylish at times, especially when the camera zips through countries like a high-speed jet. Also, the movie looks good. The camera is always focused from the right angles and the picture is pristine, thanks to cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister. That being said, somewhat decent direction and a few stylish moments can’t redeem a film with such uninteresting characters.
It isn’t just that the characters are uninteresting, but there are so many of them! It’s Johnny Depp’s show, I haven’t forgotten that, but there are an endless array of supporting players that come into the story and out of it that make it feel like a condensed and far less intriguing version of Game of Thrones. Johanna is the secondary character of the film, acting as a far more unsupportive and overly agitating version of Pepper Potts. She’s mean, and the movie tries to have her character pull out some kind of humorous reactions from Depp’s character, but it always ends with him dropping his head and mumbling some kind of “Awwwww” sound. Even though we don’t really care for Charlie as a character, we certainly do hate Johanna. Ewan McGregor is the main inspector, and it seems like he is just there for the check, not doing anything outside of his normal acting capability. And Olivia Munn, who I thought was going to be a major character, shows up in the third act and doesn’t really do anything except provide the means for an antagonistic character that has good looks. Oh, and she’s also there for the heavily over marketed boob grabbing scene, which isn’t as funny as it was in the trailer. The movie even has Jeff Goldblum, an actor that is in hardly anything anymore but is universally loved, and that love was rewarded with The Grand Budapest Hotel. Here, he is wasted.
The funniest character in the movie is Paul Bettany’s Jock Strapp, Charlie’s personal “manservant.” As the well-built, handsome, and sex-crazed bodyguard, Bettany hits the target just enough to garner more laughs than anyone else in the film combined. It’s his moments, combined with Mortdecai’s envious reactions to his ability to get more women than him, that make the movie at least somewhat enjoyable at times.
The movie goes on and on and on, reveling in its unknowably unfunny slapstick humor that so rarely peaks the funny meter. Then the third act happens and it picks up. Certain things happen with an art-based auction, and it got better. But the whole bait-and-switch with Olivia Munn’s character was ridiculous, and it plays a key role in the film’s finale.
I know that it’s my fault for expecting better from a January release, but I couldn’t help it. I thought the trailer was funny, and I stand by that. The scene with the shotgun (if you’ve seen the trailer, you know what I mean) is funny. And other scenes like it are funny. But there are also scenes in the trailer that aren’t retained in the final product of the film; scenes that I thought were really funny. Other scenes are altered, making the movie itself even less funny than the trailers hinted. Mortdecai, just like Depp’s performance of the title character, is a scatterbrained catastrophe.
1 hr. 46 mins.
Rated R for for some language and sexual material
Starring Johnny Depp, Gwyneth Paltrow, Paul Bettany, Ewan McGregor, Olivia Munn
Written by Eric Aronson
Directed by David Koepp