Film

Does Johnny Depp make a madcap, slapstick British ‘Mortdecai’ work?

Even with a mustache that makes Gwyneth Paltrow gag and a tooth gap that looks like rogue spinach?

Now I know what it’s like to be an upper crust English guy born into money and privilege but scurrying around trying to keep his wife happy and the manor under their feet.

Or not.

Now I know how the art world deals with fakes and auctions and the desires to own the most coveted paintings.

Probably not.

Now I know how the brightest British secret service maneuvers to keep order and all things tip-top under the flag and the queen.

No.

Not because I went to see Mortdecai, which uses all three themes as key plot elements, do I really have a better understanding of any or all. But a funny thing happened as I sat through the 1-hour, 46-minute comedy directed by David Koepp from a screenplay by Eric Aronson at a Saturday matinee. Johnny Depp’s performance as the oddball lightning rod Charlie Mortdecai won me over, but good.

The story was adapted from the 1973 Kyril Bonfiglioli novel Don’t Point That Thing at Me, but set in today’s times. It partners curious Charlie with a wife and a manservant. The haughty missus Johanna is played with great airs by our somewhat teetering Hollywood princess, Gwyneth Paltrow. The loyal, at-your-side-through-all-of-your-ridiculousness manservant Jock is played with a reserved verbal but robust physical gusto by Paul Bettany. Entering the fray through murder and money and more is intelligence officer Alistair Martland, given plenty of dash by Ewan McGregor. You see, Charlie’s stature in the nefarious rings of the art world has given him insight into a murder that needs solving, and besides that, Alistair still carries a flame for Johanna from the days they and Charlie were all together at university, and, wouldn’t you know it, the Mortdecai’s owe the government 8 million pounds in back taxes with the note coming due, too.

There you have it.

And Depp makes the most of it with doddering physical comedy, whimsical speech patterns and sublime timing in both.

As Charlie runs from danger, commenting on his own speed, he looks somewhat like a penguin, or better yet, slim Stan Laurel going slightly side-to-side while on the getaway with or from legendary comedy partner Oliver Hardy. As he circles a room putting clues together or plotting strategy, there’s a whiff of Peter Sellers and Pink Panther in the air.

Not that all is marvelous, mind you. The running gag between Charlie and Johanna about his new but beloved mustache gets old, and the gap between Charlie’s upper front teeth constantly brought a rogue piece of spinach to my mind.

Yet zany it is as Charlie flees more and more bad guys, particularly a very vengeful Emil Strago, played as wild-eyed as possible by Jonny Pasvolsky. When the story jets Charlie to Los Angeles, where he meets a tycoon and his lusty daughter portrayed with zeal by Jeff Goldblum and Olivia Munn, Charlie’s British sensibilities in the land of plenty are quite ticklish. And then the whole gang catches up to him there, too, and the madcap dashery continues.

Silly, yes. Sensational, no. Solid? You bet.

***

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Mark Bialczak

Mark Bialczak is a veteran journalist who has lived in the Syracuse area since 1983. In early 2013, he was set free to write about whatever he wants. Click here to read Mark’s BLOG.

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