International man of absurdity
Screwball spoof of screwball spoofs isn’t for everyone
The new Johnny Depp vehicle, a farcical and relentlessly silly detective yarn, has gotten pretty rough treatment in the national press. It’s certainly not must-see cinema, but Mortdecai is, to my way of thinking, passable comic movie entertainment, at the very least, and a comic curiosity of more than passing interest as well.
Admittedly, I may have a higher tolerance than most for low-ball comedy, so let me frame it this way as well: Mortdecai belongs in the same good/bad class as The Lone Ranger (2013 version, with Depp as Tonto), A Million Ways to Die in the West, and The Interview, and like The Lone Ranger, it is more engaging and less unbearable than either of the other two.
Mortecai/Depp is a ditzy British gent, a clueless aristocrat who fancies himself a world-class master detective and all-round connoisseur. He gets himself entangled in a cluster of mysteries involving the theft and disappearance of a classic painting, possible coded messages, a circuitous treasure hunt for a cache of Nazi gold, and the murder of an art restorer who also has a gift for forgery.
The extravagantly foppish title character seems a cross between Mike Myers’ Austin Powers and Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau (with a deliberate dash of Terry-Thomas, the mustachioed, gap-toothed British comedy star of yesteryear), but without the full comic spark of those illustrious predecessors. The film’s assorted caricatures of the kinds of Brits who seem to recur in English murder mysteries (caricatures of caricatures, really) prove mildly amusing but seem to have no real point apart from providing cast and crew with opportunities for flamboyant goofing off.
There is, of course, something to be said for flamboyant goofing off, especially when you have an appealing cast of actors who seem ready and willing. Mortdecai has Gwyneth Paltrow as the title character’s saucily adventurous wife, Paul Bettany as his multitalented and absurdly intrepid sidekick/ assistant, Ewan McGregor as the police commissioner who is Mordecai’s rival in romance and sleuthing alike, and Jeff Goldblum as a suavely menacing collector of art and automobiles.
Mortdecai is based on a series of comic novels by the late Kyril Bonfiglioli, and director David Koepp and screenwriter Eric Aronson make the on-screen version into a kind of live-action cartoon. That aspect is particularly evident in the exaggerated performances of Depp and Bettany, and in the extravagant physical comedy of the latter. Gleeful cartoonishness of another sort also works well in the scenes involving an addled Duke (a droll Michael Byrne).
For me, the film finds its comic stride just often enough. Its off-handed homages to the movie comedies of earlier eras are part of its charm, but that, of course, might not be enough to win the interest of noncinephile audiences.