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Sneaking into theaters without benefit of a press screening, MORTDECAI is a tragically unfunny attempt at lighthearted comedy. Based on the novel “Don’t Point that That Thing at Me” by Kyril Bongfiglio, its efforts at whimsy fall flat, while its attempts to attain the quirky begin and end with the waxy curls of Johnny Depp’s mustache.
He is the title character, an impoverished English lord and art dealer of sketchy repute with tax problems and a beautiful wife, Joanna (Gwyneth Paltrow) whose gag reflex is triggered by the ci-mentioned facial hair. In the tedious course that constitutes the running time of this film, he will become embroiled in a murder mystery, pursue a lost Goya, see his romantic rival (Ewan McGregor) make hay with Joanna, and shoot his loyal manservant/thug, Jock (Paul Bettany) several times.
It’s supposed to be funny. Perhaps it’s even supposed to be sophisticated in that stiff-upper-lip British tradition. Yet Depp, who co-produced, doggedly personifies his lordship as an irritating twit rather than a befuddled yet lovable buffoon, playing the character in broad, ill-defined strokes that delight no one but himself with his mugging that flailing his eyebrows with wild abandon. Couple that with plodding direction and pacing that drains any residual humor from the proceedings the way a leech drains the very life-blood from a hapless stickleback. What you have left is several characters residing in several different films of varying degrees of archness and a film that meanders with admittedly stylish art direction before mercifully ending. Before that sweet surceases of sorrows, though, lines are delivered with ruthlessly detached sang froid in an overly complicated plot remarkable only for its lack of inspiration.
When Depp offers himself up to a director with whom he is sympatico, and whose lead he is willing to follow when tempering his performance, he can be dazzling. SWEENY TODD, ED WOOD, a striking extended double cameo in BEFORE NIGHT FALLS. Even his excesses can work in the right film, the first of the Pirates of the Caribbean films, for example. But left to his own devices, and without a firm hand, disaster ensues, and so it is with MORTDECAI. Alas.