Director: David Koepp
Stars: Johnny Depp, Paul Bettany
2 (out of 5) Globes
“Mortdecai” arrives at the worst time for the type of movie it is. Its star, Johnny Depp, is suffering a bit of a backlash — the tidal wave that inevitably comes when one has been doing a shtick for long enough. He’s now, unfairly or not (though at least a bit unfairly), it seems, box office poison. On top of that, it’s been ages since Depp gave a performance that wasn’t arch but still committed; when he plays a normal person without garish makeup and pomade, as in last year’s “Transcendence,” you can hear him falling asleep in the middle of lines.
It’s actually not clear if there ever was a good time for “Mortdecai,” whose specific genre (pastiche of English romps from about five decades ago, with lots of facial hair humor) is for an elite crowd. Maybe that “crowd” is simply stocked by the man who made it: superstar screenwriter David Koepp, who wrote “Jurassic Park,” “Spider-Man” and more, and as such can pretty much do whatever he wants. Every now and then he directs a little horror film (“Stir of Echoes,” “Secret Window”), a thriller about bike messengers (“Premium Rush”) and now this, which is more expensive than all his own films combined, and more rarified in its content too.
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It’s still not clear what Koepp’s directorial style is, especially when it comes to “Mortdecai,” which is an imitation of a type of keyed-up romp that may never have existed. The film is as sprightly as its lead actor, who resurrects the bumbling art dealer dandy of a fairly obscure run of 1970s comic thrillers by Kyril Bonfiglioli. The last of these is called “The Moustache Mystery,” and there’s a honker here — an apparently new outgrowth that sweeps up into fat handlebar curls and drives his pert wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) to retch when their lips touch.
That’s one of a handful of gags that are repeated ad nauseum. In fact, there aren’t a ton of jokes; just variations on a few. The biggest of them is Mortdecai’s flowery patois, purred out by a rarely more self-pleased Depp though sometimes dipping into the territory of lame double entendres. (When learning he owes a fortune to the government, he replies, “I had no idea I was so deep inside Her Majesty’s hole.” Ho ho, though there are better one-liners to be had.)
The silly, cheerfully disposable plot finds him turning spy to hunt down a missing Goya, wanted by a variety of unseemly, though not very memorable, characters. In fact, the only one seemingly excited to be there is Depp. Everyone else — Paltrow, Ewan McGregor, Paul Bettany as Mortdecai’s unfailingly loyal and seemingly indestructible “manservant and thug” — remain begrudgingly but game to put in the minimum effort. (Jeff Goldblum, alas, is in and out far too quickly.)
“Mortdecai” has loads of problems, but the secret to its semi-tolerability is that it both tries too hard and doesn’t try hard enough. It’s energetic, poppy, quick with a joke. The joke’s are rarely all that, but the storyline is amiably, if never too enjoyably, light, and the utter lack of pretention (and heart, and recognizable humanity) are pluses, not minuses, even if that makes it easier to pan. Whatever. Funnier than it sometimes lets on, it will make a passable time-killer when you catch it on TV — which you won’t, because these days you watch what you want to over streaming platforms and you’ll probably skip over “Mortdecai” because you remember it as that forced, unfunny film about mustachery that you never saw.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge