Watching Mortdecai, I couldn’t help but spend most of my time contemplating what differentiates this from a Wes Anderson movie. After all, the former features Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeff Goldblum and, most importantly, a motorcycle with sidecar. It also centers on a valuable painting that multiple characters covet, just like Anderson’s latest, the Oscar-contending The Grand Budapest Hotel. Goldblum is in that one and, more interestingly enough, Mortdecai lead Johnny Depp was long-rumored to play the part of Monsieur Gustave H., which was filled instead by Ralph Fiennes (Anderson denied Depp was ever in consideration). Perhaps his early involvement with this similar-sounding movie wound up crossing with the other in conversations around Hollywood.
There are many things that do separate Mortdecai from Grand Budapest and others made by Anderson. The heart isn’t there, for one thing. Nor is the meticulous art direction. It reminds me of the viral videos parodying Anderson’s style made by people who clearly don’t get the filmmaker at all. To be fair and frank, when it comes right down to it, Mortdecai is really as much, or probably more, akin to the work of The Farrelly Brothers. There are fart jokes, a lot of gagging and vomiting, plus boners, horny old men, testicular preoccupations and at least two clinical nymphomaniacs (who strangely are never even hinted as being potentially paired up).
There’s also some obvious Blake Edwards influence, in that there’s plenty of physical comedy of the sort where the first shot of the movie shows a waitress delivering flaming cocktails, and we can be certain we’ll soon see such drinks knocked clumsily by the hero and catch someone’s clothing on fire.
Based on the 1973 novel “Don’t Point That Thing at Me,” the first installment of Kyril Bonfiglioli’s series of Charlie Mortdecai mysteries, the movie stars Depp in the title role, a rogue British art dealer who becomes wrapped up in a caper involving a lost painting by Francisco Goya. Paul Bettany plays his comically sex-crazed manservant and bodyguard, Jock Strapp, Paltrow is his wife, Johanna, and Ewan McGregor is an agent with MI5 who has history with the couple going back to their college days. There’s a very lived-in feel to the world of Mortdecai, where even relationships between characters that are not given flashbacks or exposited back stories are well-sensed. Some of the past, even immediately precursive, is curious. For instance, Charlie’s character-defining (and marketing-driving) English mustache is newly grown just before the events of the movie, fresh enough that we get to see Johanna’s disgusted reaction to seeing it for the first time.
And boy is she disgusted, keeping a running comedy of sexual frustration between the married pair as she refuses to even sleep or eat in the same room as Charlie and his facial hair that, to her, resembles a vagina (“the facial hair above the vagina,” he corrects her).
If there’s any real problem in the acceptance of the world of Mortdecai, though, it’s in Depp and Paltrow’s chemistry, or lack thereof. They are so very wrong together that it’s hard to see her as having been any more enamored with him before the upper-lip growth. She eventually begins sleuthing on her own for the mystery of the missing Goya, and because of this I very badly wanted her and him to have more of a Nora and Nick Charles thing going on, as much as that would potentially (hopefully) be ruinous for Depp’s casting in the planned remake of The Thin Man. But instead it’s like they’re in different movies for a bit. She’s too serious, he’s too much of a cartoon, and they clash at nearly every turn.
With its consistent playful atmosphere and spirited blend of highbrow and lowbrow sensibilities, Mortdecai otherwise works as far as what it’s going for. It’s just hard to get or get into what that is. As an adaptation, the movie has trouble letting go of its literary aspects, so it often wears the weight of a novel, but it’s also so expressively acted and frenetically directed at times, that it’s definitely more cinematic than that. Depp is clearly having a lot of fun in his performance, as are Bettany and Goldblum and some of the other supporting cast members – I particularly enjoyed Michael Culkin — and there’s a lot of terrific comedic detail on screen to appreciate even if the humor itself isn’t strong enough to meet that detail at its higher level. Director David Koepp does a much better job, as does Depp, than the script by Eric Aronson ever supports.
None of the movie is terrible, but it’s difficult to see where Mortdecai fits any major audience demographic. It’s not something I’d call an acquired taste so much as it’s limited in its appeal. Who is it for? I don’t think Americans. I believe it was produced strictly for international audiences, as it’s got the broad slapstick and randiness of a bad French comedy or maybe something else regional that I can’t put my finger on. Depp is definitely a big star overseas, and if the imbalanced foreign grosses of his recent movies, especially The Tourist, is any indication, I believe we’re seeing here that it’s not just blockbusters being catered more to global audiences. I’m curious to see what the difference in box office will be this time.
The Upside: Depp is good at what he’s doing, even if we’d rather him do something else; a few laughs when the movie gets surprisingly dirtier than it seems to be setting up for
The Downside: Depp and Paltrow’s chemistry; too much vomit, particularly when used for a ridiculous bit against the villains; Olivia Munn is even more out of place than Paltrow
On the Side: Another Wes Anderson link comes in this movie’s title and protagonist’s name, as there’s a pet hawk named “Mordecai” (note the different spelling) in The Royal Tenenbaums , which co-stars Paltrow.