Last week, when I was holed up with a bad cold, I was looking for some escapist entertainment I could enjoy while under a Nyquil stupor. I have the good fortune to live just a few blocks from a Redbox rental kiosk, so I thought I’d pick up some $1.50-a-night DVDs when I made a run to the supermarket for tissues and soup. Mortdecai is currently the featured new release at Redbox. An image of the title character—a would-be contestant for Monty Python’s Upper-Class Twit of the Year Award, modeled after British comic actor Terry-Thomas and incarnated by Johnny Depp—graces the top of the exterior display, eyes alit and mustache gleaming. In January Mortdecai opened theatrically in the U.S. to poor box office and nearly unanimously negative reviews, but that big, bright image of Depp on the kiosk suggested a film undaunted by that disastrous theatrical run, one that’s still eager to make people laugh. I decided to disregard all the bad reviews and see what it was all about.
I wasn’t really swayed by those reviews anyway. It seems like once or twice a year the mainstream press makes a whipping boy out of some eccentric big-budget movie and turns it into a punch line before it’s even released—Mortdecai had the misfortune of being that film for the first half of 2015. Often this distinction has less to do with the quality of the film than with circumstances surrounding it, like a troubled production history or popular backlash against the star. I don’t see how such whipping boys as Ishtar (1987), Gigli (2003), or R.I.P.D. (2013) are particularly worse than a starless, low-budget travesty like Desert Dancer, which is well on its way to becoming the worst movie I’ll see all year. My theory is that Hollywood studios actually sanction the widespread mockery of particular films to deflect ill will from all the other bad movies they finance on a regular basis. Now that the summer blockbuster season is upon us, I’m sure we’ll soon see another expensive flop suffer for the idiocy and excess perpetrated by countless Hollywood movies that do make money.
I had other reasons to approach Mortdecai with an open mind. In addition to Depp, the movie features a number of actors I’ve recently enjoyed watching in movies I otherwise find lackluster: Gwyneth Paltrow (Country Strong, Thanks for Sharing), Ewan McGregor (Beginners, The Impossible), and Jeff Goldblum (Adam Resurrected, Le Week-end) possess classic star power that manages to shine through even the most dismal projects. And the director, David Koepp, is an accomplished screenwriter (Jurassic Park, Snake Eyes) whose underrated directorial efforts (The Trigger Effect, Ghost Town, Premium Rush) exhibit an endearing nostalgia for genre movies of the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s. That cartoonish image of Depp on the Redbox—which, like one of the posters that hung in theaters, has him posing in front of intricate, Victorian-style wallpaper—might suggest a Wes Anderson knockoff, but given Koepp’s pedigree, I expected something not quite in step with contemporary fashion.
My expectations proved correct in that sense. In the comic-espionage plot (about the international search for a forged painting) and caricature of a hero, Mortdecai reminds me of the original Pink Panther (1963) and some of the sillier spy movies that followed Stanley Donen’s Charade (also 1963). I was also reminded of certain 60s studio comedies in the lugubrious pacing of Mortdecai‘s dialogue scenes: often a single joke gestates over the course of a scene, rather than one joke shooting off after another, which is common in so many recent big-budget comedies. Few of the extended gags are that funny, but I like how the film wants viewers to enjoy the company of its charismatic stars—they don’t seem to be under pressure to make us laugh every second. Being half-comatose from Nyquil, I found this lackadaisical approach to film comedy rather pleasant (I can understand, though, how someone wouldn’t feel this way if they were fully alert and didn’t share Koepp’s nostalgia for 50-year-old movies).
I got the impression that someone didn’t want the film to be so laid-back—and that that someone came in after the principal production. Depp’s fast-paced narration feels wedged in, as do some of the lowbrow gags and the unnecessarily complex CGI sequences that appear whenever the characters travel from one city to another. It’s uncomfortable watching the film launch into a sprint after moseying so agreeably, and when Mortdecai tries to reassume its natural gait after a sped-up passage, it hobbles. With all the awkward shifts in pacing and tone, one can easily lose sight of the amusing character comedy about Mortdecai the art dealer (Depp), his intellectually superior wife (Paltrow), and the detective (McGregor) caught in a love-hate relationship with them both. Such is the problem of trying to appeal to sophisticates and knuckleheads one at a time—you always alienate half of your audience.
I bring up Mortdecai‘s weak points only to throw its virtues into relief. I think it’s a sweet movie at heart, kind to its actors and poignantly dedicated to a cinematic era few people wanted to see revived. It’s also colorful and literate—I’m not used to hearing so many long words in a studio comedy these days. It was swell company for $1.50 a night—well, the price is probably a little higher if you factor in the cost of the Nyquil.