Mortdecai

February 7, 2015
Johnny Depp in 'Mortdecai' (2015)
Johnny Depp in 'Mortdecai' (2015)

Mortdecai is one of those films that would have had me surging towards the exit after about 10 minutes if I didn’t have a professional obligation to hang around. I could only watch with envy while members of the audience filed out at regular intervals. As an attempt at a brand of screwball or ‘caper’ comedy that should have died with the 1970s, Mortdecai will surely be judged of the most painful experiences to be had at the cinema this year – and it’s only February.

Unless you are of a sadistic disposition there is no pleasure to be had in watching a group of reputable actors humiliating themselves. Johnny Depp as Mortdecai leads the charge, but Gwyneth Paltrow as his wife, Johanna, and Ewan McGregor as MI5 agent, Alistair Martland, are not far behind.

The preposterous plot concerns the adventures of Lord Charlie Mortdecai, an English nobleman who makes a living as an art dealer of dubious morality. Teetering on the brink of financial ruin, Mortdecai is enlisted by his old university colleague, Martland, to help recover a missing Goya painting. This leads to ‘hilarious’ encounters with Russian gangsters, Chinese gangsters, a notorious international terrorist, and a Californian nymphomaniac.

In all these close shaves Mortdecai is assisted by his valet and resident thug, Jock Strapp (Paul Bettany), and occasionally by Johanna, who is routinely discussed in terms of her ravishing beauty. Paltrow makes a special effort to project this beauty by wrinkling her forehead, turning down one corner of her mouth, and looking as if she’s lost her contact lenses.

When was the last time Paltrow featured in a decent movie? Contagion (2011)? Or was it The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)?

The relationship between Mortdecai and his man-servant reads like a terrible parody of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves – if one can imagine Bertie as a jet-setting art criminal and Jeeves a martial arts expert. The defining difference is that Bertie and Jeeves were actually funny. While Bertie’s faults only made him more endearing, this film version of Mortdecai is a pathetic boor.

The inane subplot concerns Mortdecai’s moustache, of which he has grown inordinately fond, although it is ridiculed by wife and friends. In fact, every time he and Johanna kiss, she retches violently as if she is going to vomit. This is a false alarm, but to please the discerning viewer there are some graphic vomit jokes later in the film. For the audience Depp’s performance alone may be enough to make one want to start shouting down the big white telephone.

Mortdecai is so charmless it makes the Carry On movies look like the collected works of Yashijiro Ozu. It makes late Inspector Clouseau features seem as if they were scripted by Oscar Wilde. There is not a single character that won’t have viewers clenching their teeth in despair.

Johnny Depp should employ someone to tell him what movies not to make. I’ve tried to forget his contribution to Kevin Smith’s repulsive horror-comedy, Tusk (2014), but this new atrocity will leave scars on many would-be fans. Depp’s portrayal of Mordecai features an attempt at a ‘posh’ English accent that would not survive for a minute at Downton Abbey. It is merely one of the clichés associated with English nobilty that director, David Koepp and scriptwriter, Eric Aronson, have accumulated in this story. They give the impression of people whose entire knowledge of England has been gleaned from old TV sitcoms.

Some viewers may be prompted to seek out the Mortdecai novels by Kyril Bonfiglioli (1928-85), if only to see what liberties Depp has taken with the character. By all accounts the appeal of Bonfiglioli’s style was based on the wit and black humour of Mortdecai’s pronouncements – none of which are evident in this adaptation, which manages to be vulgar without being amusing.

In the hands of a director such as Wes Anderson or Tim Burton, Mortdecai might have had a chance. There is much speculation that the blame for this unlovable confection should be laid squarely at Depp’s doorstep. He is listed as one of the producers of the film, and his performance gives the impression he is indulging in a pantomime for his own amusement.

The Mordecai persona belongs so obviously to a particular period in time that it cannot be easily transposed into the present. The so-called humour of the film is stuck in the same time loop, with not the slightest recognition that lame sexual innuendo and homophobic quips don’t make the cut any more. As for the English aristocracy, they are so skilled in self-parody that no filmmaker should ever attempt to beat them at their own game.

Mortdecai
Directed by David Koepp
Written by Eric Aronson, from a book by Kyril Bonfiglioli
Starring Johnny Depp, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ewan McGregor, Paul Bettany, Jonny Pasvolsky, Olivia Munn, Jeff Goldblum
USA, rated M, 107 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 7th February, 2015.