Mortdecai, Johnny Depp’s latest foray into playing an eccentrically-endearing man-child who comically says and does whatever pops into his head, aims high.
Under the studied direction of David Koepp who understands that less is more, Mortdecai, based on a series of quirky cult novels by Kyril Bonfiglioli, is clearly looking to be the 21st century heir to be the whimsical ’60s spy capers of Peter Sellers as it tells the story of a bon mot throwing, good life-living dandy by the name of Lord Charles Mortdecai (Johnny Depp) whose main aim in life is the preservation of his moustache and maintenance of the good life to which his aristocratic background has made him accustomed and more than a little debt laden.
He is, of course, deficient in a great many other things besides a regular income, lacking a modicum of maturity, scruples – his main source of income, such as it is, is trafficking in artworks of dubious provenance which has brought him to the attention of his old university friend Inspector Martland (Ewan McGregor) of MI-5 who uses his connections with the seedy underbelly of art to solve cases – self-awareness, capability to look after himself and any sense of the consequences of his actions.
His great redeeming feature is that he is madly, passionately in love with his wife, Lady Johanna Mortdecai (Gwyneth Paltrow), a woman possessed of intelligence, wherewithal, a curious mind, in fact pretty much everything Charles lacks she has in pre-possessing abundance, with the addition of the none-too-subtle undying love of Inspector Martland.
If it weren’t for Johanna, and the presence of Charles’ omni-capable manservant and thug Jock Strapp (Paul Bettany) who steps in to rescue him from just about scrape he gets into, with multitudinous comically-obtained injuries to show for his trouble, and only a Lothario-like active sex life to compensate, it’s clear that Charles Mortdecai would be in quite a pickle old chap dash it all (he pops the plum in his mouth in the first scene and fiercely refuses to relinquish it thereafter).
And therein lies part of what afflicts Mortdecai.
While Depp lends him a quirky, over the top charm that somehow manages to make up for his more irritating qualities, and when he is in full flight he is a delight to watch throwing witty asides and clueless, pompous observations around like excessive tips at the tony clubs he likes to frequent, you do begin to wonder quite why anyone would want to be his friend, lover or employee.
That is, of course, one of the defining attributes of the Great Comic Loser that has been a mainstay of comedy since I suspect the dawn of man and to be expected in a comedy of this type but even so, amusing though he is, and I did largely enjoy his performance surprisingly, he begins to grate by the end of the film.
Stripped of all the qualities that makes most men and women bastions of maturity and common sense, and thus utterly unsuitable as sources of comedy, characters like Charles Mortdecai, who says and does pretty much what he likes leaving others to pick up the main pieces he leaves in his wake, can garner laughs that John the commuter on the 7.36 to Sydney city would fail to generate.
But in a film that fails to really pick up any head of farcical steam – you can see the wheels frantically turning but they never really gain traction even when all the ingredients are there to make it happen such as the final scenes where a stolen Goya painting, whose retrieval forms the centrepiece of the gossamer-thin plot, is in play pursued by multiple parties – the deficiencies in Mortdecai’s character begin to become more than a little obvious.
That’s not to say he isn’t entirely fun to watch; truth is, despite his irritating mannerisms and inability to do anything for himself, he comes to broad, gloriously quirky life thanks largely to Depp’s ability to invest his characters with a loveably eccentric sensibility and channelling the very caricature of an upper crust English aristocrat, complete with the hackneyed phraseology and pronunciation, he is a giddy ride into cartoonish silliness.
And frankly in the context of the light and frothy spy caper folly that he occupies he is perfectly at home, as are Paltrow, McGregor and Bethany, all of whom bring unexpected substance to their various characters (I say unexpected not because I doubt their ability to act and act well, but because the script by Eric Aronson doesn’t leave them a lot to work with).
For what it is, and it is so light and airy that it wafts away on the breeze the moment the credits roll, Mortdecai is a hugely enjoyable summoning of the ghosts of camp, crazy, silly spy capers past (even if it is not quite in their league).
But as noted previously, it never really gets going in any way that carries it with the sort of comic momentum you would hope for to the end, and even though various scenes and characters amuse, and I was amused more often than I wasn’t truth be told, the film rarely succeeds in summoning the kinds of laughs that The Pink Panther movies of Peter Sellers had in vast side-splittingly funny array.
It’s a pity rarely because there is a lot of comic potential locked up in the person of Charles Mortdecai, the latest in a long line of ineffectual British dandies with more pedigree and entitlement than sense, much of which is lost in a movie that, though it is chock full of fine comic fine performances and manifest silliness, never really finds its grooves despite many frenetic attempts.
- Viewed Wednesday 28 January 2015