by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
Do you remember when Johnny Depp was one of our most interesting and relatively exciting actors? At home as a leading man but the kind of leading man who took chances and tried different roles, who was all about finding the characters beneath the eccentricities, and who knew exactly how far was too far and scaled back accordingly? There will be an entire generation of moviegoers who only know of Johnny Depp as “That Guy Who Plays Weirdos” and that’s genuinely saddening, to me. I still think he is a very talented actor when he shows up to work or when he’s given an actual character, and he deserves better than this stigma he’s gotten attached to.
That is how I felt before I saw Mortdecai. Mortdecai has managed to accomplish what Transcendence, what The Lone Ranger, what even Alice In Wonderland was unable to do: it has gotten me over Johnny Depp. I am done with him. As I left Mortdecai, I was filled with a burning desire to never see Johnny Depp again. He needs to go away, for a long while. Mortdecai marks the point where his hammy, character-less mugging has sailed way over the line of tolerability for me and now has made me wish for him to disappear for a good while. He needs to just stop, take a year or so out, find better scripts, and then come back looking to impress instead of irritate.
Yes, surprising quite possibly nobody, Mortdecai is a bad film and Johnny Depp ends up being emblematic of everything wrong with it. It’s a film that really wants to be a throwback to 60s British farcical capers – where every line of dialogue is a sexual innuendo of some kind, everybody is pompously self-involved, the actual plot itself is light on the ground, and most of the comedy involves slapstick – but one that lacks any of the wit, intelligence, charm or fun required to make that happen. In an attempt to make up for that fact, everybody spends their time hamming the living daylights out of every line of dialogue – practically shouting in exaggeratedly exaggerated accents of whichever nationality their characters are supposed to be – keeping the register at that heightened level for what turns out to be a near-unbearably long 106 minute runtime.
It comes back to the script, written by Eric Aronson – whose only other credit is a 2001 Lance Bass and Joey Fatone (yes, of N*SYNC) vehicle titled On The Line – instead of director (and accomplished screenwriter in his own right) David Koepp. See, the script lacks any particularly funny or original quirks, instead resorting to jokes about how women are just insatiable and/or disposable sexual conquests, how foreigners are funny, how Charlie Mortdecai (Depp) is very much whipped by his wife Johanna (Gwyneth Paltrow) despite his best efforts, how Charlie is totally not gay not that he has any problems with gay people, you understand… When it does try and come up with its own thing, it’s an endless rambling obsession with moustaches that feels forced and cynical, instead of natural and honest, like it’s trying to force the moustache thing into popular and meme culture. Needless to say, it’s embarrassing.
Even more problematic is that nobody in the film is particularly likeable or entertaining to watch. Charlie is a pompous self-centred asshat whose characterisation is rarely consistent save for the “irritating” part – especially since the film can’t decide just how much of a total nitwit the guy is – Johanna should be a fun foil to Charlie but she and Depp have the sexual chemistry of a rat and a bucket of rat poison, Inspector Martland (Ewan McGregor, oh god why) ends up being a humourless squib on the film instead of an entertainingly humourless squib – and whose relentless pursuit of Johanna never really comes off as convincingly sweet or believable – and the less said about Olivia Munn’s nymphomaniac Georgina Krampf – three guesses as to what the sole joke surrounding her character is and which side she ends up on, first two don’t count – the better.
I’m not saying that the problem is that the cast is unlikeable, a tonne of great comedies are filled from head to toe with awful characters, in the good sense. The problem is that they are all really dull to watch. Koepp normally has a speed, dynamism and fun that he brings to his features – Premium Rush was a very stupid film but damn it all if it wasn’t also a tonne of fun – but Mortdecai very, very rarely displays that kind of manic, passionate energy or anarchic sense of fun. Where Koepp would normally seem engaged and entertained, he instead feels disinterested and bored, gliding through this incredibly cheap-looking $60 million film with a sense of obligation overriding everything else. Consequently, what seemed entertaining on some level from the trailers grates over 106 minutes because he never varies that tempo or mood.
Mortdecai, therefore, is a film that seems genuinely irritated by its own existence. A film that knows the script it’s working from is garbage, hates the fact that it’s garbage, but at no point shows any interest in bettering itself, almost out of spite, instead dragging itself, its cast, its crew, and the audience it holds with nothing but contempt through the mud for nearly two seemingly endless hours. What very few good gags it has are drowned out in an endless sea of allegedly inherently funny accents and repeated usages of the phrase, “Open your balls.” It has no heart, no entertaining characters, and no energy or desire to try and be some kind of fun.
And so we return to Johnny Depp, mugging his way through the entire film, indulging in all of his worst impulses, refusing to find a character underneath the eccentricities like he’s flipping off his growing critics. “I’ll show them what ‘He doesn’t play characters anymore and hasn’t been bearable for nearly a decade’ looks like! Wait, I don’t actually know who that is supposed to be making fun of.” The film Mortdecai ends up being powered by Depp’s Mortdecai and that sheer concentrated Depp-overload ends up making the film even more of a slog than it might otherwise have been. I was sick of him by the 15 minute mark, and 106 minutes with him officially got me over Depp completely. Mortdecai managed to do what Alice In Wonderland could not, and this is saying something.
Jeff Goldblum pops up in this randomly for about 5 minutes – maybe he owed Koepp, who co-wrote Jurassic Park, or something – and his presence ignited a desire within me to watch The Grand Budapest Hotel again, a genuinely good farcical caper. In fact, that’s what you should do: you should just watch The Grand Budapest Hotel and stay far away from Mortdecai. Please. Please do that. I’m worried they’ll try and turn this into a series, otherwise.
Callum Petch is fantasising all the time, “move your body next to mine.” Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!