Last night I sat through David Koepp’s Mortdecai wondering just how this amateurish mess got green lit, filmed, edited, and released. Taken from Kyril Bonfiglioli’s Don’t Point That Thing at Me, Mortdecai is a stupendously silly caper about an art dealer who finds himself thrown into a convoluted tale of espionage and danger. Starring as the titular hero, Johnny Depp doesn’t act so much as mug shamelessly, as if he felt unsure that audiences in the back row of the theaters won’t catch his emoting. And though the film has some dazzling locale shots, the dizzying and episodic structure make it feel so much longer than its hour and a half.
Part of the problem with the picture is that the tone – an arch, effete kind of comedy that has literary critics favorably compare Bonfiglioli to P.G. Wodehouse – is almost impossible to capture on screen. Certainly not by a screenwriter whose only other credit appears to be the 2001 Lance Bass vehicle On the Line. Instead of finding the right balance between affected and grating (which Clive Exton did masterfully when translating Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster for television), Aronson leaned heavily on quasi-sophisticated wordplay, that’s meant to be clever, witty, and cutting, but instead ends up sounding smug or tawdry. And at other times, it feels as if the script is struggling to feel bubbly and sparkly, but ends up flat.
Some of this is also the fault of the actors. Depp has never been more annoying. The actor is often cast as strange characters, and Mortdecai is strange, but instead of disappearing into the role, he instead plays it like second-rate panto. Effeminate, simpering, and limp-wristed, it calls to mind some of the most hoariest camp comedy of the 1970s (John Inman’s turn as Mr. Humphries on Are You Being Served? feels like a direct influence). Gwyneth Paltrow stars as Mortdecai’s gorgeous wife, Johanna – and though she gets the “gorgeous” bit right, she’s hampered by a one-note role that does nothing but ask her to be the straight man to Depp’s antics. Ewan McGregor also stars as Inspector Martland, a rival for Johanna’s affections and Mortdecai’s old chum from school. Unfortunately, the talented actor seems alternately bewildered or embarrassed, and cannot seem to fit comfortable in the farcical settings. The only actor who looks at home is Paul Bettany as Jock Strapp, Mortdecai’s faithful, but brawny, manservant.
Because Mortdecai’s plunged into an international caper, Koepp and Aronson drag their characters through some glitzy global settings, mainly London and Los Angeles. If there is anything to recommend in this confusing mess it’s the locales which can be impressive. One stylistic choice that works is having the names of the various cities Mortdecai visits, announced with massive Hollywood Sign-like letters on an animated map.
It’s clear that with some stronger direction, Depp could’ve done something with the character, though Aronson’s script lets the actor and his costars down. His impressive mustache is a running joke, particularly Johanna’s extreme revulsion to it (which makes her retch, which in turn makes him gag), and the two spend an inordinate amount of time quibbling over it. Also, because the intrigue bit of the story is most interesting, the domestic comedy between Depp and Paltrow drags the film down, as the two stars share very little chemistry.
Judging from the reviews Mortdecai is getting, it’s doubtful if this film will be expanded into a franchise. That’s good because the BBC or ITV have proven to be much better at that sort of thing, and I’d love to see a Mortdecai on Masterpiece Theatre. But on the big screen, Mortdecai is a bewildering flop.