David Koepp’s Mortdecai (2015) is a recent low not only in Koepp’s career, but especially also in its lead actor’s, Johnny Depp.
It is usually not a good sign if the closing credits song is your favorite thing about a certain movie. It is an even worse sign, however, if you don’t even like the song—that is, if you only appreciate it because it announces the end of the film. That is the sad case for me with David Koepp’s Mortdecai.
I have to admit, I have never been a big fan of Johnny Depp, nor have I ever understood the hype about his series of Pirates movies (I watched one and a half of them before concluding that they just weren’t for me). Yet, I’ve always respected him as an actor, and especially for some of his collaborations with Tim Burton. I’m thinking of Sweeney Todd, Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood, films that I love, and that live to an extent through Depp’s screen presence. If now, you take this talented man Johnny Depp, and put him in front of a camera with Gwyneth Paltrow, Ewan McGregor, Paul Bettany and Jeff Goldblum, surely, no matter what these people do, the result will be amazing, right? As it turns out, not quite.
I don’t want to lose too many words about Mortdecai, simply because doing so seems pointless. The film’s basic problem is: It is meant to be a comedy, but, most of the time, it simply isn’t funny. To be perfectly clear, that has nothing to do with its cast, and probably nothing with Koepp’s directing, either. It is Eric Aronson’s script that just doesn’t work: Full of jokes that may provoke a chuckle the first time around, but are then turned into running gags without the potential for that. Full of unnecessarily blown up, repetitive lines of dialogue. And full of pacing problems that – more than once – nip the fun in the bud.
The humor itself, whenever it manages to scramble out of the depths of that unpolished script, baffles the audience with its, mildly put, heterogeneity. In one scene, for instance, the titular character played by Depp attempts to make his wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) jealous on the phone: “I will have you know that I, too, am capable of being desirable to a certain type of woman. Yes, oh yes! Some women go blind batting their lashes for moustachioed men such as I!” – It is in a few successful of these tongue-in-cheek renderings of Austenesque couple talk that Mortdecai reaches its infrequent humoristic highs. Soon after this particular scene, however, we are forced to witness a car chase that ends in one character stopping the car behind him—by vomiting on its windshield. Yes, you read correctly. Watching Mortdecai is an experience not unlike walking down a street along a row of houses, stopping at every other door and asking whoever opens to tell you their favorite joke: Sometimes a teen will answer, sometimes a professor, sometimes a butcher. And more often than not, a grumpy old man will shoo you away and you just have to do without your laugh.
All of that would be less aggravating, of course, if Mortdecai didn’t have such a stellar cast, or if its director had been a nobody. But Koepp, who, after all, wrote modern classics like Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible, and (the best adaptation of) Spider-Man for the screen, should have seen the problems with the script. Why he, why anyone ever signed up for this production, is a mystery to me. Of course, Depp, at least, gets to wear a moustache and snog Gwyneth Paltrow. But even so, I ask myself: Was that really worth it? All I know is that he has come a long way from the Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the dawdling dandy Mortdecai. And that I enjoyed every tune in the former—but only the end credits song in the latter.
Mortdecai (US 2015). Directed by David Koepp. Written by Eric Aronson. Cinematography: Florian Hoffmeister. Starring Johnny Depp, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ewan McGregor, Paul Bettany and Jeff Goldblum. 107 min.