"Mortdecai," the latest action-comedy starring Johnny Depp, will go down in history as a complete bust. Dumped in January with the rest of the studio refuse, it made less than $5 million at the U.S. box office, and earned some of the worst reviews of Depp's career. Its Rotten Tomatoes is currently at a cringeworthy %12. And while I agree that "Mortdecai" is not the movie it could have been, I liked it. I liked it far, far more than I was expecting.
Charlie Mortdecai (Depp) is a scoundrel and crook, who is sometimes employed as an art dealer, but far more often as a charming swindler. In danger of losing everything after a large tax bill comes due, and with his marriage to the lovely Johanna (Gwyneth Paltrow) on the rocks, Mortdecai agrees to help Inspector Alistair Martland (Ewan MacGregor) track down a stolen painting and keep it from falling into the wrong hands. With his trusty manservant Jock (Paul Bettany) in tow, Mortdecai jets around the globe in search of a way out of his latest predicament, while staying a step ahead of Martland and the villainous Emil Strago (Jonny Pasvolsky).
There's a lot about "Mortdecai" that doesn't work. The capering is haphazard. The villains are a wash. However, I thought that the basic conceit of Johnny Depp playing a egotistical, craven British snob who gets up to Inspector Closeau style antics was pretty sound. The performances are decent, and occasionally better than decent. Depp recycles some of his Jack Sparrow schtick, but he's a hell of a lot more lively here than I've seen him in a while. Gwyneth Paltrow's a little wooden, but she gamely steps up to be Depp's verbal sparring partner and pulls the stylized banter off just fine. And Paul Bettany as the long-suffering, eternally put-upon, and yet still terribly good-natured Jock? I grinned every time I saw him. I didn't mind sitting through the pedestrian plotting in order to watch these actors onscreen.
And clearly I'm in the minority, because "Mortdecai" seems to have royally ticked off a lot of the people that saw it. And I find that fascinating, far moreso than the film itself. What was it about "Mortdecai" that created such a bitter response? Was it Johnny Depp playing one ridiculous character too many? The bad marketing campaign that focused on Mortdecai's mustache? Were the critics blowing off steam from frustrations boiling over from the Oscar race? The ongoing backlash against Gwyneth Paltrow? "Mortdecai" was Depp's passion project and bears all the earmarks of one, but this wasn't remotely as bad as some of the stinkers I've seen over the years. Good grief, does no one remember "Battlefield Earth"?
Maybe it was whe film's very European sense of humor. One of the reasons I found "Mortdecai" tolerable was that it wasn't reliant on crass gross-out gags. It was raunchy, yes, but in a much less sophomoric way than what we normally get out of Seth McFarland and Judd Apatow and their ilk . I can't help comparing "Mortdecai" to the 2012 remake of "Gambit," with Colin Firth and Cameron Diaz, which was similarly deplored by critics and ignored by audiences. It never received a Stateside release, despite being written by the Coen brothers - and it had a very similar tone and sense of humor to "Mortdecai." Lots of colorful characters and witty banter. Lots of complicated capering. Lots of poking fun at English upper class snobbery.
Or maybe Depp and the Coens are just behind the times. The "Mortdecai" novels were written in the '70s, but the film's aesthetic borrows heavily from media of the '60s like the "Avengers" television show, Blake Edwards movies, and early James Bond. The original "Gambit" arrived in 1966. We've already been through a few rounds of spoofs on '60s media, like the "Austin Powers" series, and this kind of material feels awfully played out. How many members of the audience even know the material being sent up or being paid homage to? It makes me a little nervous for Guy Ritchie's upcoming take on "The Man From U.N.C.L.E."
But then, I'm probably blowing this out of proportion. The simplest explanation is that Depp's one of my favorite actors, and there aren't many of his films that I haven't found watchable, simply for the fact that he's in them. Add the involvement of Paul Bettany and Ewan MacGregor, and I probably didn't stand a chance from the start. "Mortdecai" probably is as terrible as the critical consensus says it is, and the movie just happens to have found its way through my defenses via one of my cinematic blind spots, like animated musicals and costume dramas.
It's actually kind of nice to know I still have those.