Should the recent surge in male facial hair as a fashion accessory stall in 2015, barbers would be within their rights to blame “Mortdecai,” a perky but obstinately unfunny heist caper with a hero irksome enough to make any happily mustachioed man reconsider his life choices. Directed (but, unusually, not written) by an off-form David Koepp, the film shoots for the swinging insouciance of ’60s farce, but this story of a caddish art dealer enlisted by MI5 to assist in a knotty theft case is longer on frippery than quippery: There’s a fatal shortage of zingers to supplement its exhausting zaniness. Only particularly dedicated devotees of Johnny Depp’s latter-day strain of mugging — here channeling Austin Powers by way of P.G. Wodehouse — will delight in this expensive-looking oddity.
Eric Aronson’s script — his first feature-length effort since 2001’s little-cherished Lance Bass starrer “On the Line” — is based on Kyril Bonfiglioli’s 1973 novel “Don’t Point That Thing at Me,” the first in a moderately popular comic series centered on the amoral trickster Charlie Mortdecai. Mortdecai’s twitchy ‘stache was enough of a character trademark to feature in the title of the series’ final chapter; while it might be stretching a point to call Depp’s daintily upturned walrus whiskers the film’s best joke, it’s certainly its hardest-working one, serving as the impetus for several long-running gags. (If auds aren’t tickled the first time Mortdecai’s upper-lip rug triggers a woman’s gag reflex, the film reasons, they’ll warm to the idea with repetition.)
If that’s not much to build a comedy on, it’s an even flimsier basis for a character: As presented here, at least, Mortdecai is certainly daft, but not in the singularly absurd way that makes Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster, say, a distinctly human figure of fun. Rather, he’s an amalgam of easy-target toff characteristics — a preening, lily-livered aristocrat of indeterminate provenance, forced to live by his unreliable wits as his fortune supposedly runs dry.
Not that there’s any evidence of financial strain in his immaculate country pile or his equally polished trophy wife, Johanna (Gwyneth Paltrow, game but under-challenged), whose plainly superior intellect hasn’t yet inspired her to leave this dolt and head up a posh adventure franchise of her own. If push came to shove, meanwhile, it seems Mortdecai would sooner lose Johanna than his quietly hulking Cockney manservant, Jock Strapp (these are the jokes, people), played by a creatively if unhappily cast Paul Bettany; our man remains too self-absorbed, however, for any upstairs-downstairs bromance to take root.
Mortdecai’s usual subsistence strategy of art-related con jobs — passing off tat as treasure, in much the same way he passes himself off as a gentleman — is taken up a notch when Security Service agent Martland (Ewan McGregor) comes knocking. A former college frenemy who still carries a torch for Johanna, Martland reluctantly recruits the rogue to assist in their search for a missing Goya masterwork of eye-watering value. No prizes for guessing the decoys and double-crossings that ensue as the action zooms — literally so, with bouncy 3D atlas graphics — from London to Moscow to Los Angeles and back again, with a hammy side of thickly accented heavies in tow. The outcome is neither surprising nor especially smart; Koepp, whose last directorial outing, “Premium Rush,” demonstrated his occasional knack for unabashed gee-whiz silliness, is more concerned with keeping the story at an active simmer.
In that respect, “Mortdecai” succeeds; even at its emptiest, it’s hardly inert. But rather like Michael Hoffman’s ill-fated, Coens-scripted “Gambit” — a slightly more disarming attempt at comparable genre-throwback territory — the film is only frenzied, never fizzy. Its arch, abstract character relationships keep even the most superficial emotional stakes at bay; Depp and Paltrow make a sleek screen couple, but their marital banter is too low on venom, and too heavily enshrouded in quote marks, to read as sexy. McGregor, not ordinarily an actor who has to work especially hard to charm, is stymied by a role that amounts to little more than a makeweight romantic foil for two mutually dispassionate spouses; the dynamic between them is less a love triangle than it is a sexless detente cordiale.
Then again, Depp has entered a realm of performance so self-amused, one imagines most co-stars would struggle to forge chemistry with him. (As a margarine-slick Yank billionaire also in the hunt for the Goya, the redoubtable Jeff Goldblum goes largest and comes closest.) Resplendent with eccentric, Peter Sellers-indebted vocal tics and spasms, his Mortdecai is neither a careless nor an artless creation. But it is, for all its energy, a somewhat airless one — an experiment fostered by a film that’s in thrall to little else. (Tellingly, Depp also produced.)
At least, in line with its eponymous protagonist’s aesthetic sensibility, the film isn’t afraid to splash its money around: James Merifield’s production design and Ruth Myers’ costumes both hit the right note of gauche grandeur, gleaming under the bright, color-intensive glare of Florian Hoffmeister’s camera. And pop-funk producer extraordinaire Mark Ronson, making his first foray into film scoring, was an appropriate choice to assist composer Geoff Zanelli: His cluttered horn arrangements are in keeping with the pic’s retro leanings and manic disposition. Editors Jill Savitt and Derek Ambrosi can take equal credit for the latter, though at 106 busy minutes, “Mortdecai” could use a shave. Mortdecai himself, of course, wouldn’t dream of it.