Word was out: “Johnny Depp’s latest film, Mortdecai, is a big fat bomb. His career’s over. Stay away.”
I don’t know what it says about me but when I heard those rumblings I knew there was one thing I absolutely had to do—go see Mortdecai.
Truth be told, I’ve really never been much of a Johnny Depp fan. I don’t have anything against him but when I think about it I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a Depp movie I enjoyed … especially those dreadful Pirates of the Caribbean movies which I had to go to because I was raising a young child at the time and anything was better than sitting at home watching The Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers—again!—and wondering where my life took such a wrong turn.
The thing I really don’t get about Depp is the general lust he inspires. I spent the better part of my early years toiling in the gulag known as live theater. Usually after a show, when the cast and crew are sitting in someone’s living room guzzling down the gin, the talk can get a bit randy. Every now and again there’s a game of “What if?” The straight people are asked to imagine what if they had to sleep with a movie star of their own gender … who would it be? And gay people are asked the opposite. Interestingly, the number one choice for the straight men was invariably Depp. (For the women, in case you’re wondering, the answer was usually Meg Ryan, pre-facelift.) And I don’t get it. I’m sure Johnny Depp is a wonderful guy with impeccable hygiene, but he always seems … a little grimy to me. Any date with him that doesn’t involve a scrub brush and a bar of Fels Naphtha Soap isn’t a date worth going on.
Guilty, Guilty, Guilty?
But I digress. Johnny Depp and Mortdecai. From the pre-release buzz and early reviews it sounded like he was running small kids through a paper shredder. People weren’t just disliking it; they were causing themselves serious injury pumping up all that vitriol. Yet at first glance the enterprise seemed innocuous enough.
The film is based on a clutch of novels by the late British novelist Kyril Bonfiglioli, written in the 1970s, which are a sort-of lampoon of the P. G. Wodehouse Jeeves stories. The hero is Lord Charlie Mortdecai, a dissolute, extremely sketchy art dealer who, with his loyal manservant Jock Strapp (I’m not kidding), gets caught up in a series of international espionage capers. There are three books in the series. (A fourth, uncompleted at the time of the author’s death, was finished by Craig Brown and published in 1999). All were well received at publication and have since gone on to become modern cult classics.
This movie stars Depp, Paul Bettany as Jock, Gwyneth Paltrow as Lord Charlie’s wife, Ewan McGregor as his MI5 control, and Jeff Goldblum in a cameo as an art dealer. The whole thing is directed by David Koepp, a man who’s written some of the biggest blockbusters of all time (Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible, Indiana Jones, Spider-Man) but, more importantly, co-wrote the fantastic 1988 political thriller Apartment Zero and directed a tiny little film which nobody saw that I absolutely loved; the 1996 drama The Trigger Effect.
See? Nothing terrible there. And yet obits and eulogies for Depp were being written and rehearsed. I had to experience the film myself.
What can I tell you? Ruled, as ever, by some imp of the perverse (see snotty comments above about Pirates) I ended up enjoying Mortdecai. And I do mean “ended up” because I’d gone in assuming I’d be witnessing a crime scene. It wasn’t until about 20 minutes into it that I realized I was smiling … and laughing.
Caveats Amid the Roses
Let me be clear, this is far from a great film. It has trouble maintaining its tone and seems to get a bit lost in its own plot, but there’s a lot to like here. The screenplay, by Eric Aronson, is, for the most part, witty and droll. The best jokes are the throwaway lines and one-off gags happening in the margins. There’s a mordant intelligence at work and some seriously funny riffs on literary and cinematic tropes.
As it turns out, Depp is the problem. But not in the way you think, or at least not only in the way you think. There’s his performance and then there’s his relationship with the audience.
For comedy to be funny it has to be sharp and clean—and that’s especially true for a film like this which is designed with an excessively arched eyebrow and a tongue firmly planted in a cheek. I don’t want to say that Depp’s turn is sloppy, but he aims for louche and winds up blurry and smudged. Which is very obvious when contrasted with the crisp, biting performances by McGregor and Bettany. Depp reaches for the laughs, but those two are funnier precisely because they don’t play it like a comedy.
But the real trouble Depp brings is his celebrity baggage. I think one of the reasons people have hated this movie so much is that they were expecting the slapstick shenanigans of Pirates. I’ve even heard the Pink Panther films mentioned a few times … and that’s miles away from the goal of Mortdecai, which is a deliberate, studied satire. And, in the words of the great George S. Kaufman, “Satire is what closes on Saturday night.”
Additionally, the audience needs a little bit of, well, sophistication to get some of what’s happening on screen. And I don’t just mean about British art, culture, class system, and politics (though there is that) but a knowledge of, and interest in, the styles and genres being sent up. Without, I hope, sounding too catty, nuance and complexity aren’t necessarily what audiences flock to movies for.
If this had been a smaller film without all the big movie stars, and all the big movie-star expectations they engender, Mortdecai probably would have received a much warmer welcome.
So with all those caveats I would definitely recommend Mortdecai. Don’t listen to the critics. What the hell do they know?
Photo: Eric Charbonneau/Invision for Lionsgate/AP Images
Ted Hoover is a Pittsburgh based writer and critic.