MORTDECAI. Strangely unfunny comedy with Depp’s antics

Actually, the whole film consists of a few jokes, repeated over and over,

Lukasz Budnik

16 December 2023

There is something fascinating about the failure of Mortdecai, which I can’t completely dismiss. When, after 15 minutes of watching, I realized I hadn’t laughed once, I understood that I had stumbled upon a gem. Comedy is primarily expected to entertain, but the best I can say about David Koepp’s new film is that it’s likable. And that’s not bad. After the trailers, in which Johnny Depp overly clownished, I feared the worst. Mortdecai is not a bad film, but an unwanted one. It serves as a new testament to the ongoing incapacity of Depp, whose idea of a role has been limited to being eccentric, in the worst sense of the word, for several good years. However, blaming only the actor for the failure of his latest film would be unfair.

As we get to know the titular character, he is a bankrupt art dealer whose debt reaches 8 million pounds due to unpaid taxes. Fortunately, his contacts in the art collector world – where not everything is entirely legal – are valuable enough that the debt can be forgiven if Mortdecai helps MI-5 find a stolen Goya painting. It quickly turns out that on the back of the painting, there are account numbers containing money stolen by the Nazis. It’s no wonder that Russian gangsters, an American millionaire with his nymphomaniac daughter, and, of course, Mortdecai himself, who wants to outsmart everyone and get away with his life, are also following the trail of the painting. His loyal servant/bodyguard Jock accompanies him, and Mortdecai’s wife, Johanna, also decides to conduct her private investigation.

Koepp’s film is strangely unfunny comedy, essentially a farce, openly referring to the British farces created in the 1960s. Their characters were often involved in some criminal intrigue, although more often they talked and thought about sex. The humor was unrefined, yet not coincidentally, these films were quite popular, fitting perfectly into the era in which they were created. One thinks, for example, of the “Carry On” series and comedies with Peter Sellers. Mortdecai is much more direct and literal than them (in one scene we see an erection, in another, the screen is flooded with vomit), while trying to maintain the carefree fun atmosphere that characterized those titles. However, the forced fun, largely due to Depp, unable to control himself from foolishness that unfortunately doesn’t translate into laughter from the audience.

Especially when compared to other actors, he seems to be overacting, as if he had to prove that he plays the leading role. Against his background, everyone looks better, starting with Gwyneth Paltrow and Paul Bettany, playing his wife and bodyguard, respectively. She has a challenging task – their subplot boils down to a dispute about her husband’s newly grown mustache, which she despises so much that she makes him sleep in a separate bed, and every time there is intimacy, Johanna gets nauseous. And somehow, Paltrow wins those moments. Bettany as Jock has a much more enjoyable role, appearing in every other scene with half-naked girls, as his character is not only a show-off but also a real ladies’ man. Like the mustache motif of Mortdecai, it is a joke that runs throughout the entire film but makes a much better impression because we observe Jock always after a quick encounter, where he looks uninterested in continuing the fleeting relationship with his partner.

Actually, the whole film consists of a few jokes, repeated over and over, as if the screenwriter ran out of ideas at the start. So we can laugh many times at jokes about genitals (“Open the balls.” is my quote of the year), or about accidentally injuring Jock, each time by Mortdecai. Every now and then, the main character asks his trusted man what he thinks, how it will end. It doesn’t matter what is supposed to end, but the question itself. Jock’s answer is almost always the same (“I’m afraid I don’t know.”), until even he begins to get annoyed by the constant repetition and exclaims, “How the hell should I know?!”. The right reaction.

Ewan McGregor also appears as an MI-5 agent, desperately in love with Johanna since college, where he also met Mortdecai. The role is not spectacular, rather ungrateful for an actor of his caliber, although I like how his character tries to control the actions of the titular character just to be alone with his wife. But it is precisely during the scenes with McGregor that Depp’s exaggeration stands out the most, his overexpression and the desire to overplay Mortdecai in every minute. So when the time comes for his character to shine with intelligence and knowledge in the field of art, you can experience quite a shock, seeing that he really knows his stuff. Depp shouldn’t play an imbecile like Inspector Clouseau, especially when in reality he has more brains than anyone wants to admit.

As I mentioned before, not all the blame lies with the actor. Koepp is a great screenwriter but an uneven director. He knows how to tell a story, never losing the rhythm of his film, but not always knowing how to deliver a joke well. Another matter is that many of them are as old as the world, and then a lot depends on the director. Koepp, however, often trusts the actors more than his own skills, perhaps that’s why Depp seems to have slipped out of control. Fortunately, both the visual and musical aspects of the film are top-notch. In this respect, the creators did well, as Mortdecai really resembles the films it was inspired by. It is pleasantly colorful, with a catchy soundtrack, especially the excellent song from the end credits.

When I recalled Carry on Cleo a few years ago, I was struck by how much this film had aged and how little it amused me. I remembered it as a real barrel of laughs, and a repeat after years turned out to be an extremely disappointing experience. Also, some Pink Panther films with Peter Sellers have not aged well. Perhaps I am too harsh on Shameless Mortdecai. There is a chance that Koepp has met the challenge and shot a very faithful copy of that cinema, with all the benefits of the inventory, so to speak. Of course, there is still the issue of Johnny Depp and his mustache. Someday I will give them another chance.

Łukasz Budnik

Lukasz Budnik

He loves both silent cinema and contemporary blockbusters based on comic books. He looks forward to watching movie with his growing son.

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