1. Not everything about Mortdecai is horrible. Let's see. Paul Bettany has a few charming asides as (ugh) Jock Strapp, a working-class Englishman brawler sworn to eternal and inexplicable fealty to a simpering idiot. There's a flashback scene where Ewan McGregor looks just like he did in Shallow Grave, which was a great movie. Jeff Goldblum shows up for a few minutes. Uh ... London looks lovely? Gwyneth Paltrow doesn't trip over any of the prop furniture? It's only 100 minutes long? Watching this movie will in no way expose you to any communicable disease? It is extremely unlikely that the theater will catch fire? I'm doing what I can here.
2. Otherwise, this is a shitshow from start to finish, a theoretically whimsical comedy wherein the actors physically begin to shrink as it goes along, as if they realized what they had gotten into just a beat too late to possibly escape. The movie wears its awfulness like an ostentatious and affected scarf: loud, ugly, garish, but self-aware. It keeps asking you to excuse itself, winking like it's in on the joke when there is no joke, like it could take this hideous scarf off if it wanted to, but isn't it delightfully awful? It's an ill-conceived disaster from the very first frame, and frankly, I'm completely baffled that it exists at all.
3. It's a bit of a problem when your main character—the guy who'll be in essentially every frame and driving every beat of the action, such as it is—wears out his welcome within about 25 seconds. But here we have the titular Mortdecai. A rogue art dealer with gnarled British teeth, he's an ineffectual weakling of a dandy, with no distinguishing characteristics other than a pocket square and a tendency to mumble in an indecipherable accent while bugging out his eyes for no apparent reason. Also, he's obsessed with his mustache. (This movie finds mustaches hilarious.) Mortdecai stumbles randomly from one nefarious situation to another; the movie believes this to be madcap, but you'll just find it endlessly tiring, and you will not find yourself missing this guy when he's gone.
4. So let's talk about Johnny Depp, the man who plays him. Serious question: What's the last interesting Johnny Depp performance? I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and say Public Enemies in 2009, but you might have to go back farther: Finding Neverland in 2004? Please don't say Donnie Brasco in 1997. Point is, Depp has been the "eccentric" movie star for so long that it's sort of easy to miss the fact that, well, he doesn't seem to be trying anymore. His "quirky" anti-actor style has curdled into indifference and sloth. (Up next, after an intriguing biopic of Whitey Bulger co-starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Sienna Miller: Sequels to Pirates of the Caribbean and Alice in Wonderland.)
Of late, maybe because he's getting bored, Depp has started doing extended, uncredited comedic cameos, from the good (21 Jump Street) to the bad (Tusk) to the downright embarrassing (Jack and Jill). Mortdecai exists in this spirit, but what may (or may not) have worked in a cameo is mostly unbearable at feature length. Depp vamps and camps and rolls his eyes and overexaggerates every facial tic and does all the things he imagines comedic-type humans do, but he's unable to wrangle a single laugh out of the obnoxious, insufferable result. In many ways, this movie suffers from the same problem The Interview had with James Franco: It takes a non-comedic actor who excels in smaller comedy roles and gives him the Jim Carrey role, asking him not to react to the comedy, but to actually generate it. This is asking too much: Depp, like Franco, has to carry this whole thing by mugging, and that is an extremely, profoundly bad idea. Mortdecai is absolutely miserable company.
5. Thus, you have Depp twitching and spasming and babbling on with his fake, not-even-all-that-clever accent for 100 minutes, as though living out some sort of Peter Sellers fantasy. And because he's Depp, and he's still one of the most popular movie stars in the world, various stars signed up to play along. But the weirdest thing about Mortdecai is that it asks us to take the character at face value, like we're supposed to know who he is and be invested from the onset: He's actually a character in four minor English novels from the '70s, but the movie treats him as an established brand with preexisting familiarity and goodwill. (The best analogy I can make is when they made a movie about Mr. Bean, except we knew who Mr. Bean was.) Depp has reached the point in his career where he just shows up as one of these "eccentric" characters and assumes we'll all indulge him. Considering the rest of this cast and the fact that this movie exists at all, I suppose that assumption was correct. But after this nightmare, I bet that's not the case much longer. Because right now, I don't want to look at Depp's face, or that goddamned mustache, for a long, long time.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.
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