Lord Charles Mortdecai (Johnny Depp) is an art dealer who doesn’t mind bending the rules and dealing with the underbelly of the fine art trade. Married to the lovely Johanna (Gwyneth Paltrow), Mortdecai is eight-million British pounds in debt with back taxes and must find a big payday within a few days. Meanwhile, a painting by Goya is being cleaned by a restorer when she is killed by an international terrorist named Emil Strago (Jonny Pasvolsky) who steals the painting. As he escapes, he is struck by a baseball bat and knocked unconscious. The painting is then stolen from Strago. Inspector Martland (Ewan McGregor) of MI-5 approaches Mortdecai about helping find the painting. He is reluctant but agrees in exchange for a fee. Aiding Mortdecai in his investigation is his manservant Jock (Paul Bettany) who also serves as his bodyguard. Several leads are followed that put Mortdecai and Jock in peril as Strago is still looking for the painting as well as a Russian mobster named Romanov (Ulrich Thomsen). As they are running around the world, Johanna is using Martland’s affection for her to get information and conducting her own investigation. She talks with an elderly former British army officer who tells her the painting in question has a secret Swiss bank account number on the back. The account belongs to a high ranking Nazi official and could contain hundreds of millions of dollars. Mortdecai figures out the painting is actually a lost Goya that has been the stuff of art world legend for years. It is hidden under what can be seen on the surface and is only visible using UV light. Adding to the stress of the situation, Mortdecai has grown a mustache that Johanna hates. Every time she kisses him it makes her gag and he gags in sympathetic response. Between the debt, the gallivanting around the world, the threat of violence from several quarters and the mustache, the marriage of the Mortdecai’s is approaching collapse.
Just before I saw “Mortdecai” I checked its score on Rotten Tomatoes. At that time it had a 12% rotten rating. There are very few positive reviews of the film and those that are mildly positive have several reservations about the movie. Naturally, I entered the theatre prepared to have an awful time and then write a scathing review. As I exited, I wondered what all the vitriol was about. While it isn’t a spectacular success it isn’t the monumental pile of crap you might expect with such a low score. The real question is: What’s up with Johnny Depp’s career choices lately?
“Mortdecai” is a mess story wise. It jumps from location to location and introduces characters that then disappear for big chunks of time only to show up again for a few seconds then once again disappear. The movie is stuffed with characters and it makes it nearly impossible to keep up with who is who. Some streamlining of the story would have helped a great deal, allowing the plot some time to breathe and give us more time with the main players. As it is now, watching “Mortdecai” is akin to trying to read a book while jumping on a pogo stick. I think the script writers wanted to complicate the story to give it more of a feeling of a farce. Sadly, they lack the skills to juggle that many storylines simultaneously and the narrative suffers for it. While I have no evidence to support it, this movie has the feel of one that was being rewritten on the fly.
I can’t fault the cast for this as they are doing the best they can with what they are given. Depp once again buries himself into a character with a distinctive feature—his mustache. Depp excels in finding a hook into a character and coming to life once that makeup is applied. Mortdecai’s nervous tics, his grunts and groans of frustration, his air of superiority all probably started with the mustache. If the movie has a surprise performance, it is from Paul Bettany. Bettany often shines with comedic gold at various times in the film. His much put upon manservant is tolerant of all his master’s foibles, weaknesses, cowardice and poor skills with weapons that frequently get Jock injured in some way. Bettany drops in one liners and snide comments from time to time offering a glimpse into their relationship. Gwyneth Paltrow shows she can be funny in “Mortdecai.” The running gag about gagging is handled with skill by both her and Depp. Her conversations with Mortdecai, showing she is in charge in the relationship, often have a decent laugh embedded in the dialog. Paltrow’s performance is more about style than substance with her aristocratic air and decent British accent adding a layer of elegance that plays well against Depp’s mustachioed man-child.
The rest of the cast doesn’t come off nearly as well with Jeff Goldblum, Olivia Munn and Ewan McGregor all wasted in minor roles that are under written and under-utilized. McGregor gets the most screen time of the secondary players. His character is there mostly to move the plot along at certain times. Inspector Martland is also something of a metaphorical punching bag for Mortdecai as Martland was in love with Johanna in college and he thinks there may still be a chance of a relationship. Mortdecai likes rubbing his marriage to Johanna in his face while Johanna doesn’t mind using his puppy love as a way to get information. McGregor deserves a better character than this.
“Mortdecai” is rated R for sexual material and some language. The sexual material is mostly of the comic variety with no nudity. Foul language is scattered.
While “Mortdecai” has a decent number of laughs it doesn’t have enough given the goofiness of the story. The movie wants to be a farce in the style of the Pink Panther films (the ones with Peter Sellars, not Steve Martin) and the 1972 film “What’s Up, Doc?” with Barbara Streisand and Ryan O’Neal. It falls well short of the mark and would need a major retooling to approach those classics. Sadly, the movie is both a critical and financial flop, the third of Depp’s recent films to tank (following “The Lone Ranger” and “Transcendence”). The question of if this string of failures will hurt Depp’s career has been asked recently. Depp probably isn’t taking jobs because he needs the money but because he likes the project. He’s recently finished shooting a new film with Kevin Smith called “Yoga Hosers” and appeared in Smith’s last movie “Tusk.” Depp was the best thing about “Tusk” and will likely be the best thing about “Yoga Hosers.” Knowing Smith’s movies cost less to make than Depp’s usual salary tells me he takes on jobs that appeal to him. So, do three major flops in a row mean Depp’s career as a leading man is in trouble? I don’t think so. If he works on what he likes it won’t matter if they make a ton of money or not, and “Mortdecai” will not make anywhere near its $60-million budget. If you just love Johnny Depp and can’t imagine not seeing his film in the theatre then by all means go see it. If you think you can wait, watch it on Netflix or on DVD.
“Mortdecai” gets three stars out of five and that’s probably a bit generous.
Maybe the next movie I see will be better. I’ve got four to choose from.
Black or White—
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