‘Mortdecai’ Review: Grieves and Wooster
The character Charlie Mortdecai was originally conceived for a series of novels by author Kyril Bonfiglioli in 1973. I have not read the Mortdecai novels, but the character on display in the new film adaptation, in theaters today, is an immensely appealing one. Charlie Mortdecai has the upper-class cluelessness of Bertie Wooster, complete with a taste for fine art and fine foods, only he is possessed of a healthy disregard for the law. He even has his own Jeeves in the form of Jock, a faithful manservant-cum-bodyguard who beds all the young women who wander into his field of vision. Mortdecai is a character ripe for cinematic treatment, and was poised to be a worthy successor to Inspector Clouseau.
It’s a pity that David Koepp’s film was the Mortdecai we got. Rather than a frothy, energetic, and semi-satirical crime farce, we are meant to suffer through a flat, energy-free slapstick sitcom packed with scene after scene of shameless and unfunny mugging, embarrassingly humor-free jokes, and strangely stilted pacing; Any moment Mortdecai looks like its going to spring to life and become something resembling a fun movie, it crashes into the dirt with an insufferably long yammering back-and-forth about mustaches. Mortdecai is the cinematic equivalent of an early inventor trying out his brand new flying machine. He flaps for all he’s worth, and may even fly for a few steps, but always falls back to earth, usually resulting in injury.
Charlie Mortdecai is an art dealer who frequently fences valuable pieces of art into the criminal underworld. He is married to the lovely Johanna (Gwyneth Paltrow) who cannot stand his brand new handlebar mustache. Jock is played by Paul Bettany. When a valuable Goya is stolen, MI5 (represented by Ewan McGregor) enlists Charlie to track it down. His quest trots him to Russia, Los Angeles, and back to London, all while accumulating ostensibly amusing supporting characters.
The timing is just off. A film like Mortdecai needs to skip and crackle and breeze through its outlandish crime flick clichés with tight pacing and an eye for parody. Brevity, as they say, is the soul of wit. But Mortdecai is content to stroll casually and unassuredly through its paces, taking long, long intermissions for Depp to whimper and giggle and improvise. Lame jokes pile upon lame jokes. We’re meant to laugh at Charlie’s incompetence and social awkwardness, but the film only feels fun when he’s being smart and competent. I feel like a different lead actor could have spiced things up considerably. Imagine if a young Hugh Laurie was asked to play a criminal version of Bertie Wooster. That would tickle just about everyone.
Depp is a talented actor and a handsome man who has spent the bulk of his career trying to eschew the fact that he is talented and handsome. There was a time, early in his career, when playing heartthrobs was so painful for Depp, that he nearly drank himself into prison. As such, Depp, now staring down his third or fourth bomb in a row, is drawn to roles where he gets to speak in funny voices, wear outlandish makeup, and behave in a cartoonishly crass manner. Some of Depp’s outlandish roles are amazing (he did get an Oscar nod for Captain Jack Sparrow), but in recent years his insistent goofiness has become unappealing. When he tries to be funny, he fails. In Mortdecai, he spends 106 minutes trying to be funny.