How do you like your crime-solving capers? Do you prefer them intense, dramatic and intricately plotted? Do you like them filled with action — thrilling car chases and flawlessly executed stunts? Or do you have a secret fondness for the bumbling detective, the one who seems to catch the bad guy almost by accident?
Mortdecai – starring Johnny Depp in the title character – falls firmly into that last category. In a grand tradition that’s seen detectives like Inspector Jacques Clouseau (once played brilliantly by Peter Sellers, caricatured by Steve Martin in more recent years) and Ace Ventura (the “pet detective” played by Jim Carrey was indisputably sharp, even if the effects he went in for were comic), Mortdecai fits somewhere towards the middling bit of the spectrum.
As quintessentially “British” as Clouseau is French and Ventura American (think old manor house, aristocratic lineage, a lady wife Joanna –played by Gwyneth Paltrow), Charlie Mortdecai is juggling imminent bankruptcy and marital strife — caused by his desire to grow a moustache like all his forefathers, a moustache Joanna abhors on sight — when we first encounter him. The little domestic scene is completed by their butler Jock (Paul Bettany), handier with a gun than he is with the wine and cheese platter. Soon, their lives are disrupted further when Mortdecai is approached for help by MI5 agent Alistair Maitland (Ewan McGregor) investigating the murder of an art restorer and the theft of a valuable Goya painting she was working on. With the police making enquiries, chances are that the painting will disappear forever; but with the help of an art expert like Mortdecai (who also dabbles in the procuring/selling of stolen artworks on the side) the officials hope to raise fewer suspicions. And so begins an investigation that will take our unlikely hero beyond the shores of his beloved England, to Moscow and (horrors!) Los Angeles — battling baddies, financial ruin and the prospect of Joanna leaving him for Maitland along the way.
Certain nuances of the plot, especially those pertaining to the history of the stolen artwork are quite interesting. They bring to life intrigues in the Spanish court in the 19th century, and the looting of priceless works of art by the Nazis in the 20th. But when focusing on the modern-day attempts to steal and recover the masterpiece, the film isn’t at its best. Several of the sequences do induce laughs (especially Mortdecai’s early interactions with Maitland), but others fall flat — including some very off-colour humour involving an American art patron’s nymphomaniac daughter (Olivia Munn, who’s only contribution to the proceedings seems to be to allow Johnny Depp to grope her breasts). Jock’s multifarious sexual exploits (when he isn’t busy saving Mortdecai from certain death, or at least irreparable bodily harm) are as sexist as the Olivia Munn bits (no pun intended).
Mortdecai is also somewhat plagued by the fact that its principal actors seem stuck in previous roles. Johnny Depp’s Charlie Mortdecai isn’t terribly far from his Captain Jack Sparrow act in Pirates of the Carribean, and you keep expecting Paul Bettany to abruptly turn into Silas from Da Vinci Code.
Still, with a pretty short running time of 107 minutes, you won’t be bored while watching Mortdecai. There’s enough to keep you engaged, and amused — and as far as an option for a leisurely weekend watch is concerned, what more could you ask for?