In 2012 I wrote an article about Johnny Depp on my now defunct Tumblr blog. In it I observed that he has had two separate acting careers, one before the incarnation of the famous pirate Jack Sparrow, and one after. The one before is graced by such varied and original performances as Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Raoul Duke and Ichabod Crane, where Depp’s charm exuded not from his mannerisms but from a dark, troubled centre. The career after has been plagued by reincarnations of his Sparrow persona, in which every new role he takes seems to trap the essence of Sparrow behind some kind of emotional curtain. It’s as if Sparrow never left Depp, and now he’s coming out to claim royalties.
Now we get Charles Mortdecai, a squeamish British art connoisseur who sports the moustache of the gods and frets about his sex life while his estate threatens to sink into a chasm of debt. You’d think someone like this couldn’t possibly resemble the drunk, almost narcoleptic Jack Sparrow, but before you place your bet you might want to listen to the bookie: Don’t be fooled — Mortdecai might appear to be British, but he was born from a Caribbean pirate.
I’ve grown weary of Depp’s performances and career choices. He seems to pick out the most ludicrous, attention-seeking roles that usually require some sort of degree in psychopathy to play. They are flimsy creations whose only attribute is superficial entertainment; there is nothing to scratch at beneath the surface.
Consider Mortdecai. Behind his slick hair and fancy moustache and tailored three-piece suits there really isn’t much of a character. He is a coward, and cowards don’t need a personality to survive. What they need is something to run away from.
Mortdecai gets a lot to run away from in this movie, which is probably why Eric Aronson, the writer, deemed it unnecessary to gift him with any sort of human trait, apart from his unbelievable accent. There’s a running gag: Mortdecai has grown his curly moustache because he trusts it will bring him virility, and also every Mortdecai before him has grown one. His darling wife, Johanna (Gwyneth Paltrow), absolutely abhors the facial hair. She hates it so much she has Jock (Paul Bettany), the loyal manservant, prepare a separate bedroom for him. When she tries to kiss him, she retches, and then Mortdecai also retches because he has a “sympathetic gag reflex”, and we’re supposed to laugh because it is funny.
The Mortdecai estate is in ruin because Mortdecai has swindled one too many art collectors, and now his mansion is due for foreclosure in six days. After an art restorer is killed in her studio and an elusive Goya is stolen, Mortdecai is approached by MI5, led by Inspector Martland (Ewan McGregor), to recover the stolen painting in exchange for a clean ledger.
What unwinds here is boilerplate that will take us across the European Union, as far as Moscow for a brief torture scene, then back across to Los Angeles, where Jeff Goldblum plays a billionaire collector whose sex-crazed daughter (Olivia Munn) is so open about her escapades her father can only muster a “Maybe you’ll snag Georgina too. She’s been through half the staff already” to address what he’s obviously not noticing is an error in upbringing.
There are patches to enjoy about this movie. The story might be old and tired, but it still works as an art heist mystery, barely. There’s a touch of formality about the way the plot unfolds, and while I don’t buy the characters of Mortdecai, Johanna, or even Martland, I appreciate the way they fit into the visual style of director David Koepp, who once used to write award-winning screenplays.
Mortdecai will win no such awards, I fear. It’s not made of the right stuff. It’s giddy and light and puerile, and I’m wasted on Johnny Depp.
Best Moment | “Do you need help with the bags?” “No, I don’t need help with the bags. I have a fucking manservant.”
Worst Moment | The utterly perplexing climax.