Over the last decade, Johnny Depp has transitioned into a mass entertainer of sorts, leaving behind the more realistic roles and morphing into a larger-than-life purveyor of weird caricatures (Sweeney Todd), exaggerated entities (Jack Sparrow) and even imaginary creatures (think Into the Woods). This isn’t all bad. His performances are usually more entertaining than the overall grand scale of the film itself.
His latest role as Charlie Mortdecai is yet another gimmick performance, full of eccentric charm and a slurred British accent whose inaudible moans and uncomfortable gulps are just as spry as any real spoken dialogue. Yet again, it’s a performance not quite worthy of the film it’s built around.
We first meet Mortdecai on the verge of bankruptcy. His jet-setting lifestyle and series of failed art dealings combined with a hefty debt to the English government have left him grasping at straws. The stakes are raised for poor Charlie when his wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) returns home and finds herself more upset with him for growing a moustache rather than their mounting financial debacle.
A small chance at salvation arrives when MI5 Inspector Martland (Ewan McGregor) arrives and poses a mission to Mortdecai. A local art restorer ends up dead and the painting commissioned to her turns up missing. Suspicions of something greater than a vanished Goya begin to circulate and since Mortdecai is well-connected to the underground art black market, he seems to be the ideal agent to track down its whereabouts.
Bouncing from London to Moscow and eventually Los Angeles (or “the west colonies” as Mortdecai humorously refers to it), he finds himself battling all types of sinister villains wanting to get their hands on the missing painting, including a wealthy Russian (Ulrich Thomsen), a possible terrorist (Jonny Pasvolsky) and a billionaire American (Jeff Goldblum) and his quite frisky daughter (Olivia Munn).
Mortdecai is essentially a live action cartoon and madcap adventure where bullets always miss — or hit non-critical body parts as Mortdecai’s manservant (Paul Bettany) consistently discovers — and no one is ever in any real danger. It plays everything safe.
On the other hand, sexual subplots involving Mortdecai and his wife’s non-committal wishes to sleep with him any longer, the very amorous encounters of manservant Bettany with most women he meets, and Mortdecai’s temptations with women in America collide with the antiseptic violence and inject a tinge of perversion. It’s a tone that suffers throughout most of the film, as if it wants to be a harmless PG-13 comedy juxtaposed with the sharp bite of a raunchy “R” rated effort.
In addition to the uneven narrative, Mortdecai’s frame of cinematic reference echoes back to the Pink Panther series, made famous by Peter Sellers and his almost stupid luck of solving the mystery. Just as blissfully unaware as that highly influential film series, Mortdecai reaches for those heights, but comes up woefully short, displaying none of the visual panache or verbal wit of those films.
But it’s okay, we just have to wait a few months for the next off-the-wall Depp performance.
The film opens today in wide release throughout Dallas.