The art of British comedy is a delicate balance of farce, ribaldry, and wit. Mix all of those elements in the right measure, and you'll have a screaming good time. But should you run afoul of just one of those three factors, you'll find yourself screaming for all of the wrong reasons. Mortdecai is a special case though, as it fails in all three categories, and does so in abundance.
Lord Charlie Mortdecai (Johnny Depp) is on the verge of bankruptcy to the British government. In a last ditch effort to keep his wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) and his manservant (Paul Bettany,) Mortdecai agrees to work with MI5's top man (Ewan McGregor) to track down a lost painting that has fallen into terrorist hands. With a lot of money riding on this lost work of art, Mortdecai has to stay alive and stay ahead of the game if he plans on living to see tomorrow, as well as cashing his check.
Mortdecai would have been a funny movie if it were released right after Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery in 1997. All throughout the film, I kept expecting someone to scream, “Yeah, baby!” as the film was awash in the hyper-colorful foppish charm that Jay Roach's infinitely superior film soaked itself in so long ago. Instead of being a fun deconstruction of a previously popular genre, Mortdecai tries so hard at being a heist comedy with a tinge of spy action, but fails to deliver the thrills or laughs that either of those types of movies could bring at their best game.
The biggest problem of all is, surprise, Johnny Depp's performance as the titular fop. Right from the beginning, his histrionics are cranked to 11, with the knob broken off for good measure. What looked funny in small, trailer-sized doses turns into an interminable death march when applied to an almost two-hour run time. Right behind Depp is Gwyneth Paltrow, who must have been thrilled to receive the call to be in this film, as it allowed her to indulge in her one true passion: acting British. If you can call stringing along a pathetically one note Ewan McGregor a serviceable subplot, then your tastes are clearly in tune with this film's sensibilities.
The cast member I feel the most sorry for is the always game Paul Bettany, who has let himself get suckered into another underwhelming Johnny Depp vehicle. Much like his performance in Transcendence, Bettany brightens the screen with his trademark charm and comedic timing as manservant Jock. In fact, a whole film centered around Jock, with Lord Mortdecai as a secondary character, might have been the better route to go – as that would have limited Depp's foppishness into smaller portions. Either that, or they should have gotten Robert Downey Jr. to play the titular role instead, as his experiences with Bettany and Paltrow might have yielded a film that at least looked fun to make.
If you're looking for a film that's biggest running gags are cowardice and aversion to facial hair that would make a hipster stand up and applaud, then Mortdecai is the film for you. But if you long for more substance and style in your madcap comedy caper, then you're going to be waiting for a good long while. If some of the lavish production budget were spent less on costumes and more on re-writes, we might have had a film worth watching. The brightest spot of Mortdecai's failure is that there's now a Johnny Depp film on the books that makes Transcendence look like an infinitely better night at the movies.