In this action comedy based on the popular 1970s comic novels, debonair art dealer Charles Mortdecai (Johnny Depp) goes on a quest for a stolen painting that contains the secret code leading to a lost bank account filled with Nazi gold. In order to reach the treasure, Mortdecai will have to use his wits and charm, all the while contending with unobliging Russians, the MI5, his wife Johanna (Gwyneth Paltrow) and an international terrorist.
Breaking free of the critical lynch mob that greeted it stateside, the retro spy spoof Johnny Depp vehicle Mortdecai arrives in Australia sans advance press screening. Which was lucky, in a way; seeing this frantic, hit-and-miss farce with a decent-sized and obviously receptive midday crowd demonstrated not only the chasm that exists between what the reviewers say and what the punters think, but how out-of-fashion this type of slapstick adventure has become to the critical cognoscenti.
Look past the vicious reviews and the film reveals itself to be squarely in the genial, proudly silly spirit of everything from The Pink Panther to Austin Powers, with flashes of Monty Python and the absurdly mustachioed Depp channeling no less a beloved character actor than the great Terry-Thomas (How to Murder Your Wife, A Guide to the Married Man) in his tic-laden portrayal of the bumbling yet suave title rogue (Depp even sports the distinctive gap in his front teeth).
"A pleasant, if defiantly silly diversion"
In present-day London, art expert and perpetually scheming man-about-town Charlie Mortdecai (Depp) is happily married to his beautiful wife Johanna (Gwyneth Paltrow). Enlisted by government agent Martland (Ewan MacGregor) to track a long-lost Goya painting, he figures he can scam the proceeds to pay off a large tax bill.
With trusty man-servant Jock Strapp (Paul Bettany), he zig-zags from Moscow to Los Angeles in search of the artwork. Car-chases, pratfalls, sight-gags, fractured one-liners and too-short turns by Jeff Goldblum and Olivia Munn ensue.
So the average filmgoer responds positively to a pleasant, if defiantly silly diversion. From whence comes the critical vitriol? First and perhaps foremost, there’s a tangible exasperation with Depp’s increasingly over-the-top performances, most recently bookened by the Keith Richards-inspired Captain Jack Sparrow of the regrettable yet dazzlingly lucrative Pirates of the Caribbean franchise and his otherworldly Tonto in the large-scale reboot of The Lone Ranger. Add to that the listless, often disasterous smaller films he’s made in the interim (The Tourist, Transcendence) and it’s easy to see how critics could come down on him for selling out and/or losing focus after an auspicious early career run.
Leave that baggage to the side, however, and there’s a method to the madness of Depp’s Mortdecai. His comic timing is impeccable, and his plummy delivery of stream-of consciousness riffs on farting, vaginas and whatnot is accompanied by more facial tics and twitches than can be absorbed (they would, however, make a pleasingly effective drinking game).
The point is, however off-putting the extremity of his physical performance may be, it is in fact a performance of calculatedly subversive timing and vocal effect (his pronunciation of the phrase “sexual intercourse” is nearly worth the price of admission).
Unfortunately, and like many similar 1960s-influenced flights of comic fancy, the movie never really coheres as anything but a fast-paced yet often airless pastiche of genre tropes. Bettany’s comic timing is a genuine revelation from an actor heretofore known primarily for his dramatic intensity, but the rest of the cast veers from the almost comfortable (MacGregor) to the merely game (Paltrow) in delivering the often convoluted dialogue lifted directly from Kyril Bonfiglioli’s novel “Don’t Point That Thing at Me” by screenwriter Eric Aronson.
David Koepp’s direction is punchy if not particularly inspired, and the film is punctuated by the sprightly score of Geoff Zanelli and superstar DJ/producer Mark Ronson as well as some vivid CGI effects that serve to illustrate Mortdecai’s globe-spanning travels.
“Are you quite finished buggering around?” someone asks Mortdecai at one point, and the firm “no” that is his retort can be seen as warning that, critical brickbats be damned, Depp appears determined to continue creating vivid, polarising characters. “Will it be all right in the end?” he keeps asking Jock as the bullets fly. “I couldn’t say.” Jock answers diplomatically, but the truth is easy enough to determine: if the people respond, it is the critics who can bugger off.