Mortdecai is easily the bravest film of the year. It takes immense courage to make a film that’s so consistently unfunny at best, and cringe worthy to say the least. I have made many mistakes in my life and I don’t intend to start listing them now, but putting my hand up to sit through this unforgivable drudgery that you can barely call a ‘film’, is definitely right up there.
The film chronicles the mishaps of Lord Charlie Mortdecai (Johnny Depp in another excruciatingly hammy performance that’s recently become a feature of his acting resume) and his wife Johanna (Gwyneth Paltrow underplaying her character in a film where everyone else is hellbent on going over-the-top). The premise of the film is actually quite interesting, with the characters of Charlie and Johanna seemingly modelled on the detective duo Nick and Nora Charles of The Thin Man series.
Lord Charlie Mortdecai – apart from easily being the worst character that Johnny Depp has played – is an art dealer. For some reason, he’s grown a curly moustache that he combs from time-to-time while giving smug glances to everyone around him. He also has a ‘manservant’ who can’t keep his junior self in his pants at any point in time. He’s got a wife Johanna who’s repulsed by his moustache – a fact that’s drilled into you via repetitively painful hair ‘jokes’ and puke inducing kissing scenes. By this point, you’ve already given up on the film or like most sensible people, you’ve avoided it altogether.
But there is a plot here. The extravagant lifestyle of the husband-wife has brought them under debt. Charlie conspires with a police inspector, an old acquaintance of Johanna’s, to track down a stolen painting which they would later sell themselves and split the money. The search for the thief and this painting gets Charlie mixed up with smugglers, the Russian mafia and lost stash of Nazi gold. Essentially, each situation acts as a set-up to escalate the next one, but the sloppy execution and bizzarely unfunny gags make it a painful ordeal for the viewer to get through.
Charlie Mortdecai is the modern Nick Charles, albeit with exaggerated traits. Yes, Charlie is an art dealer instead of a detective and he has a ridiculously curly moustache, but at heart, Charlie loves extravagance in every aspect of his life – be it physical appearance, partying or getting in trouble – much like Nick. Johanna on the other hand, is the brains in this partnership. She fixes everything whenever Charlie gets into trouble and also reins his extravagance in to an extent. The extravagant charm of Nick wouldn’t wash without the sensibility and quick-wittedness of Nora. It’s that dynamic that makes the pairing of Nick and Nora so intriguing and hence, The Thin Man so much fun to watch even after all these years.
In this modern part-retelling and part-spoof of The Thin Man series, the original dynamic is changed. Charlie Mortdecai just retains the extravagant aptitude of Nick Charles, but otherwise, doesn’t really have much of a personality. On many occasions throughout the film, I wondered – what even is the point of him? He’s just a plot device. Charlie gets in trouble (set-up) and either his sex-charged manservant Jock – Paul Bettany in an absolutely pointless role – or his wife Johanna saves his ass (punchline). This happens over and over again, much like the incessantly reductive three word slogans used by Australia’s political parties.
It could’ve worked as a smart inversion of the power dynamic between couples who are usually depicted in detective novels and/or noir canon. Crime fiction and noir has been typically a male-centric genre. The female characters have traditionally either played femme fatales – the ‘temptation’ who leads the man away from his mission – or they’ve personified redemption – someone who tries to fix the damaged and broken male protagonist. It’s interesting then, that in Mortdecai, it is Johanna who gets to save the day. Her husband is all but a well-intentioned, bumbling fool. I’d argue that the film’s title is a nod towards Johanna, not Charlie. Johanna Mortdecai is the most well-developed character in the film and she’s the one who gets to have all the fun. We know how essential Nora’s observations were in her partnership with Nick. Johanna is the logical extension of a modern day interpretation of Nora.
The essential problem with Mortdecai has got more to do with the casting of Johnny Depp. Depp has played eccentric characters throughout his career and this is just another one in a long assembly line. Box office success has always played hide-n-seek with Depp. He was considered ‘box office poison’ for much of his early film career, after transitioning from a successful television stint on to the big screen. Hollywood executives, intent on marketing and cashing on his teenage heartthrob image didn’t appear to have much patience for his penchant for choosing eccentric characters and his continued partnership with Tim Burton. A film like Ed Wood, that would become a cult favourite in the years to come was a huge box office failure at the time.
Movie audiences and studio executives didn’t ‘get’ Depp’s brand of eccentric. And then, Jack Sparrow happened. Audiences didn’t just ‘get’ his eccentricity, they wanted more of it. Suddenly, he was a bankable star with the success of a whole franchise riding on his shoulders. Weird and eccentric, aspects of Depp’s movie choices that had kept him on the fringes for so long suddenly brought him into the spotlight and transformed his celebrity status. Eccentric was in. It didn’t matter that nobody ‘got’ it, that nobody understood the weirdness, all that mattered now was that eccentricity had finally become a bankable commodity and Depp was the face of it.
Now that he was a bankable star, studios started packaging Depp’s eccentricity in all kinds of ways. Eccentric was now mainstream. It was no longer fresh. Weird was cool, but only as a commodity. And every commodity goes through a cycle. Depp’s eccentricity, which caught on like a raging fire with the runaway success of the first Pirates of the Caribbean film, has now become a parody if itself. The commodity has run its cycle. There’s no authenticity to Depp’s eccentricity anymore, it’s just a pre-packaged product sold to us over and over again in different forms.
Above all, that’s the biggest reason why Mortdecai is so abysmal. Everyone tries to channel their inner ‘weirdo’ without having any direction as to what they’re actually meant to represent. Eccentricity isn’t an end in itself. Perhaps, this kind of box office failure is just what’s needed for everyone to finally jump off this ‘eccentric’ bandwagon so that Depp can reinvent himself in a more authentic fashion.