By Kyle G. King. With a story loosely based on the universe that surrounds an amusement park ride, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl still managed to gross $654 million worldwide, receive glowing reviews from critics and fans alike, and earn its eccentric star Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow industry prestige and a stockpile of award nominations to boot. While the swashbuckling fantasy certainly wasn’t the first film to place Depp as its lead, it was by far the most lucrative film to showcase that he had the goods to put butts in seats and cash in pockets. Jump twelve years ahead and movie studios are still swinging Depp’s proverbial ax in an attempt to strike franchise gold with this years submission for approval – David Koepp’s international action comedy Mortdecai.
Koepp surrenders his typical writer-director credit to embrace the latter, working with a script from Eric Aronson (his only other credit being the Lance Bass romance On The Line). Mortdecai is based on characters and stories from the comedy/thriller novel Don’t Point That Thing At Me, the first of a trilogy by the late Kyril Bonfiglioli. The film focuses on eccentric rogue art dealer Charlie Mortdecai, his mustache, and a cast of zany cohorts as they trek the globe trying to recover a stolen Goya painting that or may not contain information pertaining to secret Nazi gold (yes, his mustache is a character in itself and yes, secret Nazi gold).
Charlie Mortdecai is known as a man of aristocracy and inheritance, of fine tastes and stark attire, of champagne wishes and caviar dreams, and so on and so forth. And although he has indeed inherited a prodigious mansion, his penchant for high brow art and general lack of a real job has left his estate in a great deal of debt to her Majesty’s government. Despite this lack of funds and occupation, possibly through the sheer rogue-ness and playful nature of his own personality, Mortdecai manages to retain the longtime service of his brawny “man-servant” Jock (played by Paul Bettany) as well as the affection of a beautiful, smart, and maverick wife, Johanna (the lovely Gwyneth Paltrow). When old Oxford chum turned MI-5 agent Martland (Ewan McGregor, the films resident straight man) shows up at Mortdecai manor, he commissions the eccentric art dealer to use his contacts within the artistic underground to find out where a stolen Goya painting has run off to, and why. With £8 million owed to the British government, Mortdecai has little with which to bargain and agrees to the investigation “for queen and country… travel, living expenses, and a reasonable overhead.”
With such a talented and stacked cast, you’d think little could go awry with a film that deals in the seedy underworld of crime and art smuggling, yet Mortdecai manages to quickly exhaust you with its own schtick even within the first five minutes. Depp has a deep love of performance and character, that much is always clear (and respectable), but even die-hard fans of his zaniness and genius might begin to lose hope when little can be discovered of his Mortdecai beyond 106-minutes of mustache jokes and a Terry-Thomas impersonation. Paul Bettany is present to offer a rare supporting comedic performance as Jock Strapp (these are the jokes) and Ewan McGregor does fine as the frenemy British investigator at odds with Mortdecai and in love with his wife; but it’s disappointing to see studios and directors still betting too high on Depp’s character performances, spending more time with his odd nuanced gestures and twitches rather than offering any supporting character development with actors who are more than capable.
Similarly perplexing is the casting of two Americans leads for a story of British intrigue, while having the two supporting U.K. born actors change their own natural accents. This all causes a rather dishonest and cartoonish aura to surround the tone of the entire film. While this bold strategy worked (somewhat) well for films like Austin Powers and Steve Martin’s Pink Panther reboot, with Mortdecai that subtle genre transcendence of tone and era never really lands any laughs. Instead it elicits winces.
The few things it does do right is offer a sub-plot with Johanna (in small breaths of fresh air) figuring her own way through the art heist mystery that includes far less repulsive and annoying running gags. Gwyneth Paltrow’s British accent and subtle charm is much easier to digest than nearly anything having to do with Mortdecai. A short burst of insight into the history of Goya’s art (and art collection as a whole) is also an anomaly of entertaining culture amid all of the vomit jokes and silly accents.
For a rated R comedy, Mortdecai stays surprisingly tame throughout its running time. Such vacancy hints at the idea of a “Red Band” or similarly “Unrated” version to be released on DVD to make up for box office failures, which is precisely what anyone without a profound love for Johnny Depp should indeed wait for. Kyril Bonfiglioli did write two novels to follow his first Mortdecai story, providing the foundation for another lucrative Depp franchise, although the lack of subtitle (à la“Mortdecai: The Tale of the Stolen Goya”) coupled with a lackluster opening weekend doesn’t merit much confidence (or hope) for another film adaptation featuring the outlandish art mogul and his silly mustache. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.