“Mortdecai” will leave any viewer with a number of pressing questions: who taught Gwyneth Paltrow to affect British? How many jokes about genitalia can be squeezed into a single film? What exactly happens in this mad beehive of plot maneuvers? And most crucially —why would anyone make this movie? But the last one isn’t meant as a broad shot at “Mortdecai,” which is not without charm. The question is not meant to be snide: you really want to know why director David Koepp and screenwriter Eric Aronson decided to make this film in the first place. It’ll practically eat at you.
The story sets newly bankrupt, mustachioed art connoisseur and eccentric dandy Charles Mortdecai (Johnny Depp) on a transatlantic romp to recover a stolen, priceless painting and reap the fiscal benefits before MI5 Agent Martland (Ewan McGregor) —who sustains a love/hate relationship with Mortdecai and a lust/pity relationship with his wife Johanna (Paltrow)— and various vicious criminals can intervene.
Perhaps the creative team were so won over by Kyril Bonfiglioli’s source novel “Don’t Point That Thing at Me” that nothing could stop them from bringing its vision to the screen. Or it could be that they were too enchanted by 2014’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (Depp was in consideration for that film’s lead role at one point). But when you release the second hijinx-heavy European caper about stolen paintings to hit theaters in less than a year, it’s going to raise some eyebrows… and that’s without even mentioning the shared casting of Jeff Goldblum.
With nothing more than these theories, you’re stuck with a question that cannot be answered and whose perseverance stands as the movie’s greatest shortcoming. Beyond stiff and halfhearted performances, tired and infantile comic material and a needlessly complicated plot, the real, truly piercing shortcoming of the movie is that it lacks a compelling reason to exist.
This existential crisis doesn’t derive from a total absence of anything worthwhile —there are a handful of jokes that land, a couple of thrilling action sequences, and an appropriately fleshed out character moment here or there. The problem is that “Mortdecai” splits its attention frenetically, establishing a world founded on silly comedy but too frequently tabling its sense of humor in the name of laying plot twists and turns, and occasionally neglecting both when attempting to solicit “emotional” moments between Depp and Paltrow.
Instead of proffering wit and originality, “Mortdecai” is content to use lame gags to pass the time before the allegedly thrilling reveal. And instead of delivering the specifics of its carefully drawn heist plot with poise and caution, the film is happy to fill dead air with dull-as-dishwater exposition until we get around to the next screwball routine. But if everything feels like filler, when do we get to the movie these guys must have at one point been passionate enough about to make?
Sadly, glimpses of that conceivably good version of “Mortdecai” occur on occasion throughout the film. Clever contortions of the narrative hint at what might have been a compelling mystery, and irregular jabs at the film’s rotating cultural backdrop showcase strong inclinations toward sociopolitical satire that seems to have been swept under the rug in favor of the easier stuff. And every once in a while, Depp abandons his unprecedented stiffness to actually fill out the foppish form of his lunatic hero.
But the joys are too rare and the laughs are too low, despite a venue practically begging for the bigger, broader and weirder. The very ambition of “Mortdecai” to marry such an intricate escapade with wacky comedy would have been enough, but the ambition stopped at conception for all involved. So we’re plagued by that question: why, if they weren’t fully committed to its comedy, its mystery, its adventure, or its characters, did anyone want to make this movie in the first place? [C]