It’s been a slow couple of years for the comedy/caper genre which is a shame since it is one of the most accessible film genres for viewers of all ages. There’s a little something for everyone: attractive-looking (and smartly dressed) characters, slapstick laughs, punchy dialogue, and even a little action thrown in just for kicks. Lionsgate is hoping to breathe some much-needed life into the genre with Mortdecai, the new caper film from director David Koepp which features an all-star cast that includes Johnny Depp, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ewan McGregor, and Paul Bettany amongst others. But is Mortdecai the sort of revival the comedy/caper genre deserves? Or is this caper more boorish than charming?
The first thing that you should know about Mortdecai is that this is one movie you definitely won’t want to bring your kids to. While there isn’t any overt violence or sexual content to be seen, the film certainly earns its “R” rating with a generous helping of sexual innuendo, strong language, and frequent (yet tame) fisticuffs and gun fights. Of course, this is to be expected considering the film is based off of the 1970’s Mortdecai book series written by English author Kyril Bonfiglioli. The film utilizes the same lewd and raunchy tone as Bonfiglioli’s books and even sports a plot that is loosely based on the first book in the series: the 1973 novel Don’t Point that Thing at Me.
Depp plays the titular Charles “Charlie” Mortdecai, a debonair art dealer and crook who lives quite lavishly with his wife Johanna (Paltrow) and man-servant/bodyguard Jock (Bettany). However, in order to pay off the crushing debt he has racked up over the years, Mortdecai is forced to help his self-imposed sworn enemy, MI5 Inspector Alistair Martland (McGregor), in the recovery of a stolen painting which supposedly contains a clue pointing to a lost Swiss bank account from World War II. What follows is a globe-trotting adventure that leads Mortdecai and Jock to several destinations including London, Moscow, and Los Angeles, all while trying to avoid a dangerous terrorist, a ruthless Russian art dealer, and the watchful eyes of both Martland and Johanna.
The comedic elements of Mortdecai, while having their moments, sadly fall into a predictable rut rather quickly, a rut from which they never seem to be able to clamber out of. Johanna’s disgust towards Charlie’s new mustache, Martland’s unreciprocated infatuation with Johanna, Jock’s penchant for sleeping with every woman who crosses his path, Charlie’s contempt for virtually every other person in his vicinity (save Jock and Johanna), all of these result in funny quips and sight gags that are funny the first few times they happen but soon grow tired in their overuse. You’ll probably chuckle quite a few times during your viewing of Mortdecai but you’ll likely just as often roll your eyes as you’re subjected to the same recycled material over and over.
For what it’s worth, the film’s cast works as best they can with the goofy script Mortdecai’s writers wrote for them. There’s a lot of genuine comedic chemistry in the banter that goes on between Charles and Johanna and the three-way verbal sparring that occurs between Charles, Johanna, and Martland is especially priceless. Bettany however tries so hard to fit into the “generic thug with a heart of gold” archetype that it’s hard not to cringe every time he scrunches his face into a “menacing” growl or responds “yes sir” in a gravelly voice whenever Charles gives him a command. Jeff Goldblum is sadly wasted as Mortdecai’s American friend/rival art collector Kramf considering he’s in the movie for no more than five minutes total. Olivia Munn even more so as Kramf’s daughter Georgina since the only purpose she really serves is as glorified sex appeal.
To fully embrace the character of Mortdecai, Depp speaks with a lilting, smarmy British drawl that helps to add some colorful commentary to the film’s pacing through Mortdecai’s constant (and often inaccurate) narration. However, since his dialogue is also peppered with oddly-pronounced British terms and idioms, it can often be hard to fully understand what he’s saying both when narrating and when conversing with other characters. Fortunatly, McGregor’s (who hails from Scotland) and Bettany’s (an English-born chap) accents both sound more than adequately natural (because they are). Even Paltrow’s Johanna pulls off a convincing British cadence that can switch between stern and playful with ease.
It wouldn’t be completely fair to say that Mortdecai is a bad film but the brand of comedy it offers is certainly not for everyone. The film tries its best to include a healthy balance of sophisticated, witty humor and crude, tasteless gags and only partially succeeds at making either element feel worthwhile. Since Mortdecai is a comedy film first and caper film second, viewers hoping for a well-executed mystery plot won’t find a lot of meat to chew on (the film plays its entire hand pretty quickly and devotes the rest of its running time to Mortdecai’s bumbling attempts to pull off his own heist). There is enjoyment to be had, especially if you’re a big fan of witty dialogue or crude humor, but it will only come sporadically.
All in all, Mortdecai is kind of like a buffet of appetizers you have to share with a bunch of other people; you’ll find little savory bits here and there but ultimately it will leave you feeling woefully unsatisfied. If you’re in the mood for some cheap laughs, go ahead and check out Mortdecai. If you’re hoping for a quality caper film on par with The Pink Panther or Johnny English however, best save your money and watch them instead.