‘Mortdecai’: Mortifyingly bad

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Does having a protagonist with an anachronistic  moustache and an effete affect enough to make a film funny? Apparently, the makers of “Mortdecai” believe that to be the case. The film has little else in it to elicit even a half-hearted chuckle.

Lord Charlie Mortdecai (Johnny Depp) has a carefully cultivated, 19th century moustachio on his upper lip and a mincing manner. Charlie’s lissome wife, Johanna (Gwyneth Paltrow), is repulsed by Charlie’s recently grown facial addendum. Every time that Charlie kisses his lissome wife, Johanna (Gwyneth Paltrow), the hairy bristles trigger her gag reflex. This in turn triggers a sympathetic gag reflex in Charlie.

Undaunted by the fact that it isn’t particularly risogenic, “Mortdecai” repeats this sight gag over and over again. The filmmakers seem to harbor the mistaken notion that this inane gag will become incrementally funnier with successive iterations.

The filmmakers try to milk other, equally inane premises for yucks.

Despite his hereditary title and palatial estate, Mortdecai has fallen on hard times. He owes $8 million in back taxes and is looking down the barrel of insolvency.

An opening scene finds Mortdecai in a Hong Kong casino. He is trying to sell a rare vase to a Chinese gangster, Fang (Junix Inocian). Fang reminds Charlie that the aristocrat cheated him on a prior transaction. As retribution, Fang directs his henchmen to chop off one of Charlie’s fingers. Before they can carry out the order, the ever-ready Jock (Paul Bettany) intercedes on Charlie’s behalf. In the resulting brawl, Jock demonstrates his pugilistic skills.

This constitutes another recurrent plot device in the film. Jock repeatedly saves the timorous, physically overmatched Charlie from harm. Jock even stoically endures being shot several times by the inept, accident prone Charlie.

Bettany somehow manages to escape this film with his dignity intact. The same cannot be said of Depp, whose foppish performance constittues an embarrassing career nadir.

An arts curator, Bronwen (Norma Atallah), is restoring “The Clothed Maja,” the famed portrait of the Duchess of Alba by Francisco Goya. Bronwen is killed by an arrow to the back, shot by Emil Strago (Johnny Pasvolsky). Before the killer can escape with the purloined artwork, he is knocked unconscious by another thief, who has been hiding in a tree.

The following day, Alistair Martland (Ewan McGregor) from MI5 arrives at the crime scene. He has been tasked with recovering the painting, which has certain national security implications. Alistair reluctantly retains Charlie as a consultant. Alistair plans to reacquire the painting, then sell it to a wealthy American collector, Milton Krampf (Jeff Goldblum). In exchange for his services to the Crown, Charlie is supposed to receive 10 percent of the sale price.

The dynamic is complicated by the fact that Alistair has had a crush on Johanna, dating back to their student days together. Johanna plays on Alistair’s heartstrings to obtain certain privileged information. This propels her independent investigation of the art theft.

“Mortdecai” is adapted from a series of moderately successful 1970’s novels by Kyril Bonfiglioli. The relationship depicted therein between an English upper cruster and his Cockney subordinate might be considered as an uncouth version of P.G. Wodehouse’s duo, Bertie Wooster and his butler, Jeeves. It doesn’t help matters that the novel has been adapted for the screen by Eric Aronson. His last feature length screenplay was for 2001’s “On the Line,” a critically reviled film, which starred Lance Bass.

“Mortdecai” is a particularly disappointing given that David Koepp helmed the film. Previously, he had co-written and directed two strong works, “Ghost Town” and “Premium Rush.” With this horrendous work, Koepp is definitely moving in the wrong direction.

“Mortdecai” represents the latest offbeat, pet project by Johnny Depp, who is a co-producer of the film. Previously, he was involved with several films, which focused on Hunter S. Thompson, the father of gonzo journalism.

In addition to being a disaster from an artistic vantage point, “Mortdecai” has proven to be a box office fiasco. Made on an estimated budget of $60 million, the film recouped a mere $4.1 million in its opening weekend box office.

Even the most ardent Johnny Depp fan will struggle to find anything redeeming in this film. “Mortdecai” is mortifyingly bad.

*1/2 R (for some language and sexual material ) 107 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.


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