You can see what attracted Johnny Depp to the character of Charlie Mortdecai: the dapper dope persona; the twee moustache; the faux heist film farce elements; co-stars including Gwyneth Paltrow, Ewan McGregor, Paul Bettany, and Olivia Munn; a chance to further explore his obsession with eccentricity; and, if successful, a series of books from which to draw from, the better to foster a full blown franchise.
On the other hand, you can also instantly see what will drive audiences crazy about the cloying clod and his uninteresting circumstances; the staid storytelling; the lack of genuine laughs; the waste of legitimate talents; the weird, almost Napoleon Dynamite like sensibility that requires a truly unusual aesthetic sense in order to appreciate what’s going on.
Viewers will indeed have to work hard to find something to like about this occasionally intriguing misfire. Mortdecai often feels like a really clever experience just slightly out of balance and off kilter. You can sense that everyone thought this would be a stitch. Sadly, it ends up as a natty, noble failure. Depp is fine. So are his co-stars. But the overall tone (set by an out of his element David Koepp) and the inability to find a means of connecting with the characters leads to an experience that never quite lives up to our expectations. When it gels, it’s genial. When it doesn’t, it drags. And drags.
When a valuable painting is stolen, noted art dealer and fancified flim flam man Charlie Mortdecai (Depp) is called on by former college classmate, Inspector Martland (McGregor) to help retrieve the valuable canvas. Apparently, the combination to a safe filled with Nazi gold is scrawled across the back of the image and Mortdecai sees this as a chance to change his flagging fortunes. Bankrupt, and suffering with an increasingly disillusioned wife (Paltrow), our hapless hero takes off with his faithful manservant Jock (Bettany) to locate the object. Soon, he finds himself in hot water, kidnapped by Russians, chased by baddies, and perhaps worst of all, forced to ply his peculiar trade in that most heinous of places — America!
At first, one’s not quite sure what to make of Mortdecai. Is this a tribute to Peter Sellers, a too-smart-for-its-own-good throwback to the days of frilly European farce? Are we supposed to be part of the in-joke, or simply marvel at Depp and his fellow thespians acting idiotic for the sake of some surreal slapstick satire? Koepp may be trying to copy Blake Edwards here, and he definitely has an actor in tow who can handle the insanity, but there is still something unsettled about this film. By the end, it feels like the various subtleties the script is striving for are tossed aside for one manic set-piece after another.
Because he was so bafflingly brilliant at bringing staid material like this to life, Sellers always succeeded. Here, Depp appears a bit daunted. He knows what he has to do and yet you can feel him pulling back, wary of critics who will call him out, once again, for relying on quirk instead of depth to define his character. And it has to be said that Charlie Mortdecai is a rather unpleasant feeb. Some of the things that he does, designed to get you to laugh, only wind up making you cringe. Luckily, Bettany’s Jock is around to clean up the various personal and professional missteps. He’s probably the best thing in the entire film.
When he first broke out from his Tiger Beat teen idol TV gig, Johnny Depp seemed to avoid the normal and the mainstream to find projects that suited his own sense of artistic purpose. The results have been uneven at best. Maybe, with some time and perspective, Mortdecai will be seen as a feather in his career cap. Now, it’s just another example of the superstar’s lagging fortunes.