Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: David Koepp
Stars: Johnny Depp, Gwyneth Paltrow, Paul Bettany, Ewan McGregor, Olivia Munn, Jonny Pasvolsky, Jeff Goldblum, Michael Culkin, Ulrich Thomsen, Guy Burnet, Paul Whitehouse.
Based on a 1973 novel Don’t Point That Thing At Me, written by the late Kyril Bonfiglioli, the underwhelming Mortdecai is a flat and laboured comedy caper film that produces yet another dud for Johnny Depp.
Once a respected character actor who brought to life some eccentric and troubled characters, in recent years Depp seems to have become a rather camp compilation of all the foppish mannerisms and idiosyncrasies that have suffused all of his screen characters since he first donned the mantle of Captain Jack Sparrow in the lucrative Pirates Of The Caribbean franchise. His latest film is something of a vanity project that continues his run of strange characterisations and box office flops.
Here he plays Lord Charlie Mortdecai, a foppish aristocrat and unscrupulous art connoisseur with low connections in the art underworld. But Charlie has fallen on hard times and owes Her Majesty’s Government millions in unpaid back taxes. To clear the debt he reluctantly agrees to work for MI5 to locate a stolen Goya painting that is rumoured to hold the key to finding a fortune in Nazi treasure.
This mission takes Mortdecai and his loyal and oversexed man servant, the wonderfully named Jock Strapp (a game Paul Bettany), on a worldwide hunt to find the missing painting and keep it out of the hands of Strago (Jonny Pasvolsky), a terrorist eager to use the Nazi loot to fund terrorism, a ruthless Russian oligarch (Ulrich Thomsen), and even some unscrupulous art collectors like Krampf (Jeff Goldblum, slumming it in a thankless role).
The complex and convoluted plot takes our bumbling hero on a journey from his comfortable Oxford mansion to London, Moscow and even to Los Angeles, or “the colonies” as our hero blithely refers to the city. The exotic locations are nicely shot by cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister (The Deep Blue Sea, etc), who gives the film a glossy visual quality.
Mortdecai is only the second screenplay written by Eric Aronson, and follows his forgettable 2001 romantic comedy On The Line. The humour is low brow and ribald in nature, and there are some double entendres that would not be out of place in a Carry On film, but they are not very funny. And there is a cartoonish quality to much of the violence and action here.
The director is David Koepp, a respected writer of tense thrillers like Panic Room and Jurassic Park, who has also dabbled in directing with mixed results (the recent thriller Premium Rush was an adrenaline fuelled action thriller). Koepp previously directed Depp in the suspenseful and unsettling Secret Window, which was based on a Stephen King novel. But here his direction is uneven and even tired in places. And he doesn’t seem able to restrain his erratic star.
Depp plays the roguish Mortdecai as an oblivious upper class British twit who bumbles his way through some dangerous situations. He comes across as something of a cross between Peter Sellers and gap-toothed comic Terry Thomas. He adopts a faux British accent, and does comic pratfalls and mugs extravagantly for the camera in search of laughs that just aren’t there. There is also a running gag that concerns Mortdecai’s walrus like moustache that doesn’t work.
Gwyneth Paltrow is game and brings a touch of class to her performance as Mortdecai’s long suffering and estranged wife Johanna, who herself seems capable of solving the mystery while her husband gallivants around cluelessly. Ewan McGregor seems uncomfortable with the demands of his role as Martland, a former college friend of Mortdecai, who now works for MI5 and who also has a crush on Johanna. Olivia Munn makes the most of her small role as Georgina, Krampf’s nymphomaniac daughter who is also out to find the valuable painting.
Bettany is easily the best thing here with a droll and game performance as Mortdecai’s capable man servant and hired muscle who is often injured in the line of duty. There is some good chemistry between Depp and Bettany in their third film together that does occasionally lift the tired and forced material.
This comedy caper set against the duplicitous and dangerous world of the black market in stolen art seems a throwback to the 60s in tone and style, but it fails to capture the elegant charm of superior films of the genre, like Stanley Donen’s Charade or the original Gambit. This is also a huge misfire and cinematic embarrassment along the lines of the dire Hudson Hawk.
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