×

Film Review: ‘Mortdecai’

Energetic but obstinately unfunny, David Koepp's throwback farce is a showcase for Johnny Depp at his most self-amused.

With:
Johnny Depp, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ewan McGregor, Paul Bettany, Jeff Goldblum, Olivia Munn, Michael Culkin, Johnny Pasvolsky, Ulrich Thomsen, Alex Utgoff, Rob De Groot, Guy Burnet, Paul Whitehouse, Norma Atallah, Michael Byrne, Nicholas Farrell, Jenna Russell.

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3045616/?ref_=ttfc_fc_tt

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.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'Mortdecai'

Reviewed at British Film Institute, London, Jan. 20, 2015. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 106 MIN.

Production: A Lionsgate release of a Lionsgate, OddLot Entertainment presentation of an Infinitim Nihil, Mad Chance, Lionsgate production. Produced by Andrew Lazar, Johnny Depp, Christi Dembrowski. Executive producer, Gigi Pritzker. Co-producer, Kenneth Kokin.

Crew: Directed by David Koepp. Screenplay, Eric Aronson, based on the novel "Don't Point That Thing at Me" by Kyril Bonfiglioli. Camera (color, widescreen), Florian Hoffmeister; editors, Jill Savitt, Derek Ambrosi; music, Mark Ronson, Geoff Zanelli; production designer, James Merifield; art director, Patrick Rolfe; set decorator, Sara Wan; costume designer, Ruth Myers; sound (Dolby Digital), Tony Dawe; supervising sound editor, Ron Bochar; re-recording mixers, Bochar, Tom Fleischman; visual effects supervisor, Paul Linden; visual effects, Prime Focus VFX; stunt coordinator, Rowley Irlam; line producers, Misato Shinohara, Akash Roy; associate producer, Monique Feig; assistant director, Josh Robertson; second unit directors, Peter MacDonald, Rowley Irlam, George Aguilar; second unit camera, Craig Feather; casting, John Papsidera, Elaine Granger.

With: Johnny Depp, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ewan McGregor, Paul Bettany, Jeff Goldblum, Olivia Munn, Michael Culkin, Johnny Pasvolsky, Ulrich Thomsen, Alex Utgoff, Rob De Groot, Guy Burnet, Paul Whitehouse, Norma Atallah, Michael Byrne, Nicholas Farrell, Jenna Russell.

More Film

  • Amanda Awards

    ‘Out Stealing Horses’ Tops Norway’s 2019 Amanda Awards

    HAUGESUND, Norway —  Hans Petter Moland’s sweeping literary adaptation “Out Stealing Horses” put in a dominant showing at Norway’s Amanda Awards on Saturday night, placing first with a collected five awards, including best Norwegian film. Celebrating its 35th edition this year, the Norwegian industry’s top film prize helped kick off the Haugesund Film Festival and [...]

  • Editorial use onlyMandatory Credit: Photo by

    Richard Williams, 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit' Animator, Dies at 86

    Renowned animator Richard Williams, best known for his work on “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” died Friday at his home in Bristol, England, Variety has confirmed. He was 86. Williams was a distinguished animator, director, producer, author and teacher whose work has garnered three Oscars and three BAFTA Awards. In addition to his groundbreaking work as [...]

  • Instinct

    Locarno Film Review: 'Instinct'

    Now that “Game of Thrones” has finally reached its conclusion, releasing its gifted international ensemble into the casting wilds, will Hollywood remember just what it has in Carice van Houten? It’s not that the statuesque Dutch thesp hasn’t been consistently employed since her startling 2006 breakout in Paul Verhoeven’s “Black Book,” or even that she’s [...]

  • Good Boys Movie

    Box Office: 'Good Boys' Eyes Best Original Comedy Opening of 2019

    Universal’s “Good Boys” is surpassing expectations as it heads toward an estimated $20.8 million opening weekend at the domestic box office following $8.3 million in Friday ticket sales. That’s well above earlier estimates which placed the film in the $12 million to $15 million range, marking the first R-rated comedy to open at No. 1 [...]

  • Pedro Costa’s 'Vitalina Varela' Wins at

    Pedro Costa’s 'Vitalina Varela' Triumphs at Locarno Film Festival

    The 72nd Locarno Film Festival drew to a close Saturday with Portuguese auteur Pedro Costa’s dark and detached film “Vitalina Varela” coming away with several awards together with superlatives from segments of the hardcore cinephile crowd, including jury president Catherine Breillat. In announcing the Golden Leopard prize for the film, as well as best actress [...]

  • Vitalina Varela

    Locarno Film Review: 'Vitalina Varela'

    Frequently beautiful compositions and the theatrical use of a fierce kind of artifice have long been the hallmarks of Portuguese auteur Pedro Costa, regarded by a small but influential group of aesthetes as one of the great filmmakers of our era. For those in tune with his vision, the director’s films offer an exciting lesson [...]

  • Notre dame

    Locarno Film Review: 'Notre dame'

    Not to be too cynical about it, but might the recent horrific fire in Paris’ cathedral attract audiences to a film in which the gothic gem plays a major role? It’s likely a wiser marketing strategy than promoting the unrelenting silliness of Valerie Donzelli’s oh-so-kooky comedy “Notre dame,” the writer-director-star’s return to contemporary Paris following [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content