in Shocktober

Mortdecai (2015)

I had a lot of options when it came to picking a movie to close out this year’s festivities. I could have done what I usually do and review a bad movie from this year (Serenity was a front-runner, as were two movies I’ve actually seen, Dark Phoenix and Men in Black: International) but this isn’t just any Shocktober, this is the Decade of Death! In honor of the work we put in this month, I decided I wanted to review a bad movie that represented the darkest, bleakest aspects of the 2010s as a whole. Something so horrible only those who lived through this decade would remember it. So what were the bad directions cinema went in over the past 10 years? Well, there were the unnecessary franchise films, so I could have watched something like Dumb and Dumber To. There was the collapse of theatrical comedies, so I could have watched something like Grown Ups. Then there was “cancel culture” and the backlash to it, so I could have watched something unsavory or truly deplorable but quickly decided that was a bad idea.

One film exists in the crossroads of these terrible trends. A brazen, foolish attempt to simultaneously cash in on the goodwill generated by one decaying franchise and the tiniest opportunity of another. A comedy so painfully unfunny that even watching it on Hulu, I still wanted to find a way to get my money back. A film starring a person who was already creatively burnt out and would go on to reveal himself to be so problematic that I remember hearing an audible groan in the audience when he appeared in another movie just a year after this one. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Mortdecai.

We first meet Lord Charlie Mortdecai (Johnny Depp, who surely wishes he had died of an overdose 15 years ago) in a club in Hong Kong. He’s ostensibly there to sell a vase to a gangster, but mostly he wants to brag about his mustache. This mustache is a big deal, it’s a point of pride for Mortdecai, drives a wedge between him and his wife, and is a constant topic of conversation throughout the film. I don’t think it’s a particularly funny or outrageous mustache, and no one has anything amusing to say about it. The best recurring joke is when his wife kisses him, she gags because of it, and he gags because he has a sympathetic reflex. But even in those instances, neither of them actually vomit. What a tease! It’s just a childish aspect of this movie, like Depp’s constant mugging and terrible accent; the film expects us to find it funny just because it exists. Hopefully Depp felt deep pangs of regret when Kenneth Branagh showed him how it’s done in Murder on the Orient Express.

The gangster who Mortdecai is selling to lowers his offer for the vase from £2 million to £1 million, and Mortdecai reluctantly agrees because he needs to money to pay off his enormous tax debt. Then the gangster says that actually, Mortdecai ripped him off last time he sold him something and now he wants to cut off one of Mortdecai’s fingers. That’s fine, but why did you haggle the price down first if this whole thing was a ruse? The gangster’s henchmen even get out banknotes to pay Mortdecai, so was this not the plan? Did the gangster just suddenly remember he was mad about last time in the heat of the moment? Regardless, this is when Mortdecai’s bodyguard and manservant Jock Strapp (Paul Bettany) reveals himself and saves his employer by fighting off the henchmen.

Yeah, that’s the kind the kind of laughs Mortdecai is going for. The tough guy’s name is Jock Strapp, and Mortdecai does a little voice over monologue about how “every man should have a good Jock Strapp.” Hee hee, ha ha. This would be fine in a movie for children, but Mortdecai isn’t that. It’s rated R, baby, a movie for adults. Which is utterly baffling because the violence isn’t that violent, the sexual situations aren’t that sexy, and the language isn’t even really that bad. It’s not like Paul Bettany’s character is named Dick Sling or Penis Pants… he’s just Jock Strapp. It really seems like screenwriter Eric Aronson, for whom this is one of his only two credits, could have easily found a way to tone this down to the PG rating it deserves. Only the simple mind of a child could enjoy this movie.

I seriously do wonder if Mortdecai was made expecting, at most, a PG-13 rating and then when the MPAA came back with a R because there’s a scene where Johnny Depp cups Olivia Munn’s breasts the filmmakers just threw their hands up and said fuck it. Looking back at The Hangover movies, maybe they thought an R rating could actually attract audiences. Maybe they presumed that the kids who grew up with Depp’s Jack Sparrow wanted a new, adult character for their modern lives (in addition to the endless Pirates of the Caribbean sequels). Or maybe everyone involved in this movie just wanted to be rid of it as soon as possible so they just didn’t care to fight it.

Mortdecai and Jock return to his estate outside of London, where we are introduced to Lady Johanna Mortdecai (Gwyneth Paltrow), Charlie’s wife. She is revolted to see Mortdecai’s mustache, immediately kicking him out of their bedroom. Johanna then starts brainstorming ideas for how they can pay off their debt, perhaps by selling off things Mortdecai likes. He protests and says he’ll find a way to make the money before the end of the month. Cut to: Inspector Alistair Martland (Ewan McGregor), at the scene of the murder of an art restorer, realizing that his, and England’s, best chance at solving the case is by consulting a certain unscrupulous art dealer named Charlie Mortdecai.

Alistair arrives at the Mortdecai home. A flashback explains that Alistair and the Mortdecais all went to college together and that Alistair had a crush on Johanna that’s never gone away. He had even written her a poem confessing his love, but when he went to read it to her, he found her having sex with Mortdecai. This is one of Mortdecai‘s many similarities to Austin Powers in Goldmember. As you might expect, Alistair and Mortdecai still have a tense relationship to this day, so as Alistair explains the case, Mortdecai tries to undermine him by offering bad wine and cheese so stinky it makes Jock gag just to bring it over. All of this is even more boring to watch than I imagine it was to read this paragraph. Alistair says that whoever killed the art restorer stole a Francisco Goya painting she was working on, and that the prime suspect is international terrorist Emil Strago (Jonny Pasvolsky). Mortdecai agrees to find the painting in exchange for a vig, natch.

By investigating the scene of the crime, consulting his contacts in the art world, and digging up an old, giant book in the library, Mortdecai determines the Goya might be his long-lost masterpiece. Apparently it was a portrait of a king’s mistress that the queen ordered destroyed, so it was smuggled out of country. It ended up in the hands of a Nazi leader years later, who scribbled the details of his Swiss bank account on the back of it when he was about to be captured by the Allies. So not only is the painting itself valuable, it might also be the key to an untold Nazi fortune, which Strago could use to fund terrorist attacks across the globe for years. Hey, this sounds like something really important to get because lots of innocent people could actually be in danger.

This part of Mortdecai seems like it was going for like a Naked Gun-type feel, where Mortdecai is effective in a slapstick way and everyone around him just goes with it. The problem is, the tone is just not quite right. Johnny Depp’s performance is so over-the-top and unappealing that whatever was supposed to be funny is lost on me. On top of that, nobody seems to actually like Mortdecai, which sucks the remaining fun right out of the proceedings. It’s like watching a terrible comedian bomb over and over, except it’s Johnny Depp talking about a fart for two minutes in a ridiculous accent and Ewan McGreggor replying, “fuck you.” Plus, it’s weird to go back to a throwback, generic “international terrorist” villain. I know that this was based on a book from the Seventies, but nowadays I think we all have a much harder time laughing at the idea of a terrorist inheriting a bunch of Nazi money and maybe something could have been changed. Just make him a thief?

Case in point: the last contact Mortdecai talks to is his mechanic, Spinoza (Paul Whitehouse), who doubles as an art smuggler. Mortdecai knows that Strago would have needed to use Spinoza to get the Goya out of the country, but can’t get a word in because Spinoza has a thick accent and wants to yell at him for not taking better care of his Rolls-Royce. Again, accents are funny is the joke. Strago arrives and shoots Spinoza multiple times, which Mortdecai sort of obliviously reacts too. It’s the kind of scene that maybe Steve Martin or Leslie Nielsen could have made work, but Spinoza actually bleeds out and dies, so it’s kind of hard to laugh about that. Mortdecai doesn’t really care, nor does he seem to feel any shame when he shoots Jock and then hits him with a car in the ensuing escape scene. This guy is a psychopath.

Strago escapes and Mortdecai is left without a lead. To keep things moving, the movie has Mortdecai get captured by Russian thugs and that whole thing’s terrible. They want to torture him and a lot of scrotum jokes happen. Actually, it’s just the same one over and over. Mortdecai escapes with Jock’s help, so whatever. In the meantime, Johanna investigates another potential buyer (I think? I can’t actually remember why she met up with this guy) called The Duke (Michael Byrne). The Duke is funny because he’s old and forgetful. Anyway, Mortdecai decides to investigate another potential buyer, an American named Krampf, who was also interested in buying Mortdecai’s Rolls. So Mortdecai and Jock head off to investigate Krampf’s Los Angeles home under the pretense of selling the car.

Here’s the craziest thing about Mortdecai: at this point, for a little bit, it hits its stride. Unleashing Mortdecai’s many eccentricities on contemporary California is actually kind of amusing. It’s still fairly Austin Powers-y, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I sort of enjoyed this brief fish-out-of-water section of the movie. His goofy enthusiasm, and lines like “Dear, sweet, sperm-heavy Jock. Behold this America, this new colossus, this fair land of the free” are as close as the movie gets to being funny. Unfortunately, it’s just a few scenes: Mortdecai leaving the airport and checking into a hotel. After that, he heads off to the Krampf estate and is surrounded by upper-class folks again. But for a few minutes, I could see why someone could have thought this movie would work.

At the Krampf mansion, Mortdecai and Jock first meet Krampf’s famously nymphomaniac daughter, Georgina (Olivia Munn), who asks Mortdecai to grab her breasts for the first time within seconds of meeting him. Poor Olivia Munn, I hope someday she finds a project that actually lives up to her comedic talents that isn’t just being the only bright spot in the last few seasons of The Newsroom. I was surprised to find out Krampf himself was played by Jeff Goldblum, who’s just doing his own thing, man. Krampf rips the upholstery out of the Rolls and reveals that Spinoza had hidden the Goya in it all along. It turns out that Strago really did hire Spinoza to smuggle the painting, but Krampf had paid Spinoza more to steal it and send it to him. Mortdecai has Krampf turn the painting over, but doesn’t see anything written on the back.

That night, Krampf has a party to debut the painting. Once again, Georgina gets Mortdecai to grab her breasts, this time at the exact moment that Johanna arrives at the party. It’s not a big deal. The thing is, watching someone grab someone’s breasts isn’t sexy and isn’t funny. It’s just embarrassing. Anyway, I guess Alistair is there too. Mortdecai and Jock sneak away to try to steal the painting, only to discover Strago has already murdered Krampf and taken the painting himself. They try to stop him, but Georgina interferes, revealing that she is Strago’s lover. They escape together, with Mortdecai, Jock, Johanna, and Alistair in hot pursuit.

While this was going on, Strago had set up a distraction so they could all get away from the party: he laced the hors d’oeuvres with something that makes people projectile vomit. So as Mortdecai and the others leave the party, we see fancy people puking all over the place. There’s a car chase where I don’t remember who was in the other cars. Jock is sick, but he’s still doing his best to be helpful by throwing up on the windshields of pursuing vehicles. Despite Mortdecai’s famous sympathetic reflex, he only gags. I guess the joke could be that he’s so self-centered he’s making other people’s real suffering about his non-suffering? Maybe, I don’t want to give the movie that much credit. They make it to the motel that Strago is hiding out at.

We find Strago and Georgina using chemicals on the back of the painting because they, like Mortdecai apparently, have concluded that the bank account numbers were written in invisible ink. To stop them from getting the information, Alistair throws his lighter on the painting, accidentally also lighting up all the cans of chemicals Strago had for some reason, blowing up the room. Everyone survives, but Strago and Georgina escape. This feels like maximum plot contrivance, the movie had naturally come to an end so they had to find a way to extend the story and went with “they escape off screen.”

The job sort-of done, Mortdecai and the others return home. Since the painting was destroyed, Mortdecai doesn’t get paid for his work. However, Johanna reveals to him that the Duke had hired the art restorer to make a fake copy of the painting and that was the one that was destroyed. The real painting was in the Duke’s home all along! The couple pay the Duke a visit, only to find he has died. They steal the painting anyway and devise a plan: put one of their own paintings up for auction, but let some of the characters we saw earlier in the movie know that the Goya is hidden under it. That way they can sell the stolen painting legally.

It all comes down to the night of the auction. The Russians show up, as do the gangsters from Hong Kong from the beginning of the movie. Strago sneaks in to try to steal the painting. There are fights, Mortdecai saves Jock for a change, and they manage to bid up the painting enough that the Mortdecais will more than be able to pay off their debt. Alistair arrests Strago and sets it up so that the money from the auction goes straight to the Mortdecai’s debts, meaning that after taxes and fees, they basically are broke again. But also that was what they were going to do with the money anyway? And they’re upper-class people who don’t have problems regardless. Everything’s fine.

Mortdecai and Johanna take a bath together and admit they are still in love for whatever reason. He offers to shave his mustache for her, she is moved by the gesture and allows him to keep it. They kiss, and she gags again, causing him to gag as well. Hilarious. Then the prestige: The Russians, who won the auction, go to get the Goya from under the Mortdecai’s painting, only to see that it’s been switched out for a painting of Winston Churchil’s head on a bulldog. Got ’em!

Mortdecai‘s director, David Koepp, is one of the most successful screenwriters of all time, credited on beloved films like Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible, and Spider-Man. He also directed Johnny Depp in 2004’s Secret Window, when he was at the height of his powers. Koepp’s last directorial effort before this was Premium Rush, which is fun in a campy way. I wish this could have been more like that. His career is pretty scattershot, but I notice that Koepp hasn’t done a ton of comedies. The only other one he directed was Ghost Town, another movie that lives and dies based on its lead actor’s charm. I don’t think he’ll be doing one again. Koepp’s next movie is a Blumhouse joint, You Should Have Left, which is also based on a novel and stars Kevin Bacon and Amanda Seyfried.

Apparently Johnny Depp is a big fan of the Mortdecai trilogy of novels written by Kyril Bonfiglioli in the Seventies. So no one could say he phoned in this performance. It’s just… bad. He’s wrong for the part, he’s making big swings and he’s missing all of them. And the movie makes such a big bet on him, he’s in damn near every shot. His take on Mortdecai himself is so strange and unpleasant that you can’t help but wonder if maybe someone else, perhaps an actually British person, could have made this work. As is, this is almost cultural appropriation, like blackface but for British people. We will never know if a better take could exist as Mortdecai was dumped out into the open grave of January releases and bombed hard enough that I doubt anyone else will take a run at those books again.

I can see the charm of this property, though. Mortdecai yearns to be a movie in the style of a Wes Anderson or Noah Baumbach, very twee and pointedly out-of-touch. Unfortunately, it became a movie where its star thinks every line, no matter how dull, could be funny if you say it silly enough. That’s somewhat true with Captain Jack Sparrow, when he’s a supporting character who doesn’t get the lion’s share of the dialogue and mostly is just adding exposition. Here, it’s exhausting. Mortdecai was a mistake, Mortdecai is bad, Mortdecai should be the most embarrassing entry on the filmography of everyone involved.

  1. Delightful and infuriating as usual. Gotta admit though, Jock Strapp is pretty funny.

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