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Sophistication has sunk to a new low in “Mortdecai”

By Matt Hlady

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(David Appleby/Lionsgate/MCT)

(David Appleby/Lionsgate/MCT)

Director David Koepp’s attempts to fuse classically dry English humor with American slapstick in “Mortdecai,” a film about an English, aristocratic, bumbling bankrupt art thief, and the result is decidedly disappointing. Despite a loaded cast including Johnny Depp (Mortdecai), Gwyneth Paltrow (Johanna Mortdecai) and Ewan McGregor (Inspector Martland), the comedy is so pathetic, it made my funny bone frown and the plot so predictable that it could have been put into last week’s horoscope. The jokes are asinine, the acting over the top (even for Johnny Depp) and the English fetishism that Koepp markets was tired a decade ago. The film is so horrendous that I cannot even bring myself to mock it. It would be like kicking a wingless pelican.

After a tiresome narrative introducing the main characters, we discover Mortdecai and his wife owe over eight million pounds to the Queen. As luck would have it, an art conservator is murdered and the priceless painting she was restoring is nabbed. However, an unseen person knocks the thief unconscious and the painting is stolen again. Arriving at the scene, Inspector Martland is baffled and is forced to request Mortdecai’s services to find the painting, considering his extensive career in art trafficking. Mortdecai agrees under the condition that he receives a 10 percent finder’s fee.

Koepp seems to be trying to bring something of Inspector Clouseau through the role of Mortdecai, yet makes the same mistake as “The Pink Panther” reboots did. He dumbs down the character’s wit and replaces much of it with unimaginative ridiculousness. The film revolves around American perceptions of English stereotypes (e.g. idiotic nobility, lower class people all sounding like they’re from Liverpool or London and excessive manners) and static characters. It’s as if the director was banking on Americans finding everything British hilarious without much consideration for making an actual film.

The movie is littered with expensive shots and animations for transitions between geographic locations that serve no purpose except to interrupt the action. Some of the shots and much of the music are reminiscent of James Bond, and I would guess it is intended to be funny. It’s not. There are no interesting angles or lighting, the dialogue is bland and even the film’s one Wilhelm scream feels flat.

The only entertaining character in the entire fiasco is Mortdecai’s manservant, Jock Strapp (Paul Bettany). While the name lacks in originality, his reserve and competence balances out his master’s ridiculousness, while his stoic manner of coping with Lord Mortdecai is humorous. For once, the stereotypical politeness works. Even so, the repetition of this and several other formulae became dull an hour into the film.

In a comedy of this type, one would expect eccentric performances. Since eccentricity is Johnny Depp’s calling card, the role of Charles Mortdecai is appropriate for his brand of farcical body language. However, his long list of comedic and dramatic accolades mean nothing in the grim face of a script that seemed hell-bent on sinking the ship.

We know Johnny Depp for his role of Jack Sparrow. That is the type of performance that the public seems to have been begging of him ever since, hence his casting in this film. Since it’s his specialty, it is easy to forget the performances he gave in “Finding Neverland” and “Sweeney Todd.” Instead of balancing his repertoire with more serious films, his career seems to be dragging him further into the dark side of comedy, desperately driving him to abysmal shows such as this.

The only recent instances of Mr. Depp’s successful exuberance were as The Big Bad Wolf in “Into the Woods” and as Tonto in “The Lone Ranger.” The roles smacked of Sparrow, albeit toned down some. He has demonstrated his capacity as a serious actor even recently in “The Rum Diary,” which revolves around another middling script, yet he appears to be desperate and falling into films like “Mortdecai” and “Transcendence.” Why, I could not say.

As fine a cast as this film has, it is lacking in almost every other way. The wit is, on occasion, clever and the sets and locations are lovely. Those are this film’s only redeeming features. I was nearly ecstatic to leave the cinema at the end. The bland soundtrack, lackluster plot, insipid characters and juvenile gags spell one sentence: Do not see this film. I can only pray that this debacle does not murder the actors’ careers. The best that I can hope for is that the bad publicity will keep them in the public eye until they land a decent role.

Matthew Hlady can be reached at [email protected].

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