Mortdecai Directed by David Koepp; written by Eric Aronson; with Johnny Depp, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ewan McGregor, Paul Bettany, Olivia Munn, Jeff Goldblum, Ulrich Thomsen
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Some movies fail so spectacularly at the box office that I become curious to see them. After all, what could be so terrible about “Mortdecai,” a British-style suspense comedy starring Johnny Depp and Gwyneth Paltrow, to make the public avoid it so much that during its first week the movie made less than $5 million? And this happened in January, which – coming just after the premiere season for Oscar hopefuls – is considered to be the weakest month of the year in terms of cinematic quality. True, the critics absolutely loathed it, but since when does the public listen to critics? Or did they maybe just have trouble pronouncing the name when they came to buy tickets?
I found myself thinking back to Michael Lehmann’s 1991 “Hudson Hawk,” another suspense comedy about a stolen artwork. The movie, which starred Bruce Willis – then at the peak of his career – was likewise savaged by critics and described in its day as one of the biggest commercial failures in history. It was made on an even bigger budget than “Mortdecai,” and if you factor in the years that have passed, the sum spent making “Hudson Hawk” really was exorbitant compared to the relatively modest budget ($60 million) of the new film. I went to see “Hudson Hawk” when it came out, expecting the worst – American critics had described it as a display of stupid cinematic arrogance – and although its flaws were evident, I nonetheless enjoyed the overall air of silliness, which at moments translated into a certain sophistication. I now went to see “Mortdecai” hoping that my “Hudson Hawk” experience would repeat itself.
Well, it didn’t. “Mortdecai,” directed by David Koepp, really is a failure in every sense, making you wonder what the filmmakers could have been thinking. Johnny Depp, who worked with Koepp on “Secret Window” from 2004, was one of the producers. Based on one of Kyril Bonfiglioli’s comic novels from the 1970s, the movie is a suspense comedy offering neither suspense nor comedy. Its hero is a perfect idiot, of the kind Peter Sellers shaped to perfection as Inspector Clouseau in Blake Edwards’ “Pink Panther” movies. “Mortdecai” was clearly trying to capture something of the “Pink Panther” spirit, but while Sellers was able to emphasize the bungling Clouseau’s mixture of naivete and cunning, Koepp’s film gives us an idiot who is simply an idiot; not even the actor playing him seems to enjoy his idiocy.
“Mortdecai” is a movie about a mustache – the mustache that the hero, art dealer Lord Charlie Mortdecai (Depp), decides to sport over the objections of his wife, Joanna (Gwyneth Paltrow). If the mustache is the only problem Joanna sees in her husband, then she has a problem herself. I didn’t count how many times the ornate mustache – compared to which that of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot seems completely natural – is the pretext for a joke, but this happened many, many unnecessary times.
In addition to a beautiful wife and a spectacular estate, Mortdecai, who drinks too much and is suffering from money problems, also has a manservant-bodyguard named Jock (Paul Bettany). When a painting by Goya is stolen, Mortdecai believes that he may have a way to avoid bankruptcy: rumor has it that on the back of the painting is a code leading to a Nazi treasure. A government agent named Alistair (Ewan McGregor), an old suitor of Mortdecai’s wife, also becomes involved, and the gang embarks on a journey through many cities and attractive landscapes while crossing paths with Russians and various terrorists, all searching for the stolen painting.
The way I’m describing it makes it sound like it might have worked; but it doesn’t, and not because the plot is implausible – that can actually be alright – but because it is dull. Everything in this movie stumbles along, from the story to the characters. “Mortdecai” tries to be clever, and there is nothing more tedious than a movie – or a person – trying hard to impress us with cleverness, and failing.
And there in the middle of this embarrassing muddle is Johnny Depp, with a fake British accent and a gap between his teeth (maybe he is meant to be an unfortunate reminder of the brilliant British comedian Terry Thomas, who also sported a mustache). We all know by now that Depp likes disguises; we’ve long wondered at his efforts to hide his good looks behind exaggerated, sometimes ludicrous costumes. This time he has gone too far, looking like a dressed-up actor in the most inferior kind of skit.
I don’t know what’s gone wrong with Depp; what I do know is that his appearance in “Mortdecai” seems to spell some kind of existential and emotional crisis. It’s unpleasant to watch a talented, charismatic actor, whose career has included some unconventional and even bold choices and good performances, fall apart before our eyes.