Having combed Roget’s Thesaurus in vain for a suitable adjective to describe the Johnny Depp comedy Mortdecai, I’m forced to say it’s just … bad. The direction by David Koepp is bad, the screenplay by Eric Aronson very bad — though if Aronson were a bubbly American 15-year-old attempting a British caper-comedy after thrilling to a lot of old movies (which is how the script plays), I’d tell him it wasn’t too bad because puberty is difficult enough. Depp is very, very bad. Watching his first scene, a bad echo of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, I thought he’d finally moved from emulating late (insane) Brando to late, slumming Peter Sellers and would spend the rest of movie swapping out wigs and accents. It quickly became clear that his bad, gap-toothed Terry-Thomas imitation (with extra eyebrow action) would be all she wrote. The badness settled over the audience like nuclear ash.
Critics are expected to explain the reasons for their judgments, and my feeling is that Mortdecai is bad on account of its general badness. It’s based on a comic novel, Don’t Point That Thing at Me, by one Kyril Bonfiglioli, a surprisingly not-bad Wodehousian pastiche I whizzed through in a couple of hours after enduring the film. Bonfiglioli’s hero is a mix of Bertie Wooster and Nick Charles, a louche, drunken, ever-on-the-verge-of-insolvency aristocrat whose beauteous wife finds his lovingly curled new mustache literally nauseating. (Literally.) There’s no Jeeves, so Mortdecai (the t is silent, as in fox) travels the world with a scarred manservant named Jock who saves him from sundry assassins while still finding time to seduce every available (or unavailable) woman.
Reading Bonfiglioli, I finally saw what Depp and Company were shooting for, but nothing kills pastiche like campy overemphasis. (Others will disagree, which is why drag shows remain popular, but I think that nowadays camp needs to be Wildean, like Charles Ludlam, or punkishly confrontational, like early John Waters, to be more than dumb winks and nudges.) Oddly for a movie like this, one of the villains is a donnish old queer who presses his erection in an elevator against the gibbering Mortdecai. Camp plus homophobia is quite the combination.
Thumbing through my notes on Mortdecai, I find phrases like, “bad Wes Anderson dollhouse exteriors,” and questions like, “Did Depp envy Robert Downey Jr.’s success with his depressingly bad Sherlock Holmes?” Every time Depp gave a phlegmy little stammer and jauntily uttered lines like, “I say, old bean,” I wanted to bop him on the same with a rotten tangerine. The plot is something about a long-lost Goya painting on the back of which is scrawled the number of a Swiss bank account full of Nazi lucre. A Russian assassin wants that painting (or, more precisely, that account number) in the most murderous way, which leads to bad slapstick fights (Mortdecai effuses like a sissy twit while amscraying stage right) and interchangeable chases.
What’s not so bad? Mark Ronson and Geoff Zanelli’s ’60s-ish lounge-music score, which has patches that, in another context, would be transcendent. Mortdecai’s “sympathetic gag reflex,” which guarantees two, two, two retches in one. Ewan McGregor’s crisply authoritarian entrance to a murder scene as an MI-5 inspector — though McGregor runs out of invention. Gwyneth Paltrow, who plays Mortdecai’s wife and is generally bad but once or twice has the blithe insouciance of Diana Rigg’s Emma Peel. (If Gwynnie could have learned to karate-chop, she’d have been better than anything in the ’90s remake of The Avengers.) Above all, Paul Bettany, who makes the hulking Jock an endearing mix of incongruous traits. Bettany, a Brit, understands that a performance can be both broad and straight (i.e., non-campy), an idea that eludes many American actors who aren’t weaned on classic farce.
Time to pull back a smidge. For all the badness in Mortdecai, I’ve seen many action comedies that are much, much worse. Hudson Hawk is bad with bells on. Those Downey Holmes movies are bad to the bone. The aforementioned Avengers remake is Beyond the Valley of the Bad. Badness is a reliable hazard of the action-comedy genre, in which campiness and bloody violence can often mix badly.
And another thing: Every bad performance in Mortdecai is by an actor who, in other circumstances, has thrilled me to pieces. Zillion-dollar screenwriter Koepp has directed entertaining films, among them Stir of Echoes and the supernatural comedy Ghost Town. (I enjoyed his flop bicycle-messenger thriller Premium Rush, a model B movie. So sue me.) In the end, we must lay the badness of Mortdecai at the feet of its star. I envy Depp’s capacity for self-amusement, but it’s a pity he’s so rich and enbubbled that no one dares say to say to him, “Er, Johnny … this is, er, really very bad.”