After a priceless painting is stolen, shady art dealer Charlie Mortdecai (Johnny Depp) is recruited by an old rival (Ewan McGregor) to get it back. Mortdecai questions his rival's intentions, but takes the job for the money and to keep his high-maintenance wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) happy. With the help of his manservant (Paul Bettany), Mortdecai must face terrorists, angry Russians and more in a hilarious globe-trotting chase.
Do you think mustaches are funny? If so, for how long can they work as a joke? I thought the limit was Seth MacFarlane’s A Million Ways to Die in the West which featured Neil Patrick Harris as a mustache salesman who broke into a song where the keyword is mustache. But Mortdecai seemed determined to set a record for how long you can elongate a simple trait into a running gag. This is a joke that beats itself so forcefully against the wall that it has broken through the drywall and moved on to the wall in the next room.
Johnny Depp, having failed as a straight man in 2014’s Transcendence, returns to his once prominent talent as a quirky character actor. As the titular protagonist, Depp plays a goofy and decadent art dealer who seems more determined to maintain his facial hair than his bank account. His mustache is a small, bushy and curled collection of hairs that everybody seems to loathe except him. He returns home to his wife who is repulsed by its presence that she gags every time she gives him a kiss. This in turn triggers Mortdecai’s sympathy gag reflex, one of many running gags that only have one note. Seeing it established early on, you can bet there will be some vomit scenes on the way.
Falling deeper into debt, Mortdecai is called upon by MI-6 to track down a stolen piece of artwork. Armed with his muscle-bound manservant Jock (Paul Bettany), he trots around the globe searching for clues on a case that leads to car chases, fist fights and zany misunderstandings. Jock does most of the heavy punching and driving while Mortdecai stammers and flails about as an absent-minded cad. He needlessly questions and prattles on like a shrewdly meek Englishmen who perceives that he exists on a plain of higher class. The film expects us to laugh at his ignorant miscalculations and oblivious nature which ends up getting Jock shot and beaten by Mortdecai’s stupidity. There isn’t anything more to the character than his juvenile wit and dorky mustache. How is it that Depp has come so far that he’s reduced himself to the level of an English stereotype who has to find comedy in the lowest of places? Funny mustaches have got to be at the very bottom of that humor barrel - he must be incredibly desperate for a laugh.
If you think Mortdecai’s character is a waste, you won’t believe how simple the secondary characters appear. This brings about another lame trait of a struggling comedy: funny names. The full name of the simple-minded assistant Jock is actually Jock Strapp. Yeah, the film actually went there. Jock sleeps with every woman he can and takes action in stride like a cuddly version of Jason Statham. There’s not much else to say about him. The same goes for the rest of the characters. Mortdecai’s wife Johanna (Gwyneth Paltrow) exists mostly as a shrewd figure who suspects his cheating and hates his facial hair choices. MI-6 agent Martland (Ewan McGregor) plays a jealous lover who was too late to confess his love for Johanna in college and interprets all of their moments as a chance for them to hook up. Even Jeff Goldblum and Olivia Munn are so forgettable as despicable American art dealers that you don’t blame them for phoning in their performances.
The film at least has a brisk pace the way it quickly whips away from London to Russia to America and back again (via elaborate computer-generated transitions). But rushing as quickly as you can to the same joke doesn’t exactly improve the lackluster comedy. Maybe director David Koepp is counting on the audience getting whiplash from the speed that we won’t have time to notice the poor-quality screenplay by Eric Aaronson. Perhaps if the film were packed with enough celebrities and fancy decor, the childish gags and scenarios would actually be entertaining. When you can’t even enjoy the film on that level, Mortdecai becomes completely irredeemable for any entertainment value. This is a film where you have to turn your brain cells down to the point where Johnny Depp being seen in a mustache is enough to make you laugh for an extended period of time.
No amount of shaving or trimming can save this picture from its embarrassingly amateur attempt at a caper. The best thing I can say about Mortdecai is that Depp’s image of the character was used as a promotional poster for The Art of Shaving grooming products. Depp’s well-groomed face next to the fancy shaving product makes for an iconic bit of advertisement. The tagline for the ad reads “handsome in just four steps.” Keeping in line with that slogan, Mortdecai is comedy boredom in just 106 minutes.