David Koepp’s (very loose) film adaptation of the first of Kyril Bonfiglioli’s novels concerning louche art dealer Charlie Mortdecai arrived in January to resounding disdain. Much of this was directed at star Johnny Depp, whose whacky voices/ wigs/make-up schtick is now being judged as a full-blown irritant by even his most charitable critics. While I’m not immune to a sense of fatigue at his determined mugging, I’ve yet to succumb to thermal death point; I do, actually still find him entertaining for the most part. So with that caveat, for the most part I found his latest crazy creation, Charlie Mortdecai, entertaining, as determinedly indulgent as his performance is. The real problem with Mortdecai is that it comes courtesy of a director lacking real comic flair. The movie is fitfully as engaging and lively as it desperately wants to be – and by no means the atrocity that has been claimed – but Koepp continually gives off the air of someone who has studied how to make a crazy comedy caper, and never as one to whom it comes naturally.
Koepp, from a screenplay by Eric Aronson, seems to be aiming for something of the effortlessly oddball tone of Wes Anderson (Jeff Goldblum even appears, for all of three minutes), but you can’t learn how to be Wes Anderson. Either you’re a Wes or you aren’t (Depp was reportedly considering the M Gustav role in Grand Budapest Hotel at one point). I could imagine, say, Michael Lehmann lending this an appropriately offbeat tone, but Koepp is all at sea. I’d attributed the issues with his last comedy Ghost Town, to be more down to Ricky Gervais as leading man, but Koepp’s funny bone malaise seems more fundamental. If you’re trying too hard, you end up looking desperate. He’s a solid, serviceable director (Stir of Echoes and Premium Rush are particularly strong examples), and even with a bit of a fizzle (Depp starrer Secret Window), he can generally nail tone, but the prevailing lack of comedy on his screenwriting resumé, and his being someone who can adapt Dan Brown with a straight face, ought to have been warning signs.
Bonfiglioli’s novels have been compared in prose style and sense of humour to PG Wodehouse, and he was so indebted (quite understandably) that he couldn’t resist namedropping the author in his Charlie Mortdecai novels. For Bertie Wooster transpose Charlie Mortdecai, and for Jeeves replace Jock (Strapp, Paul Bettany). It’s true that Bonfiglioli has an exuberant, jocular style, but in content he couldn’t diverge more extremely from his authorial hero. The Mortdecai novels are the vulgarian’s version of Wodehouse, Carry On Wodehouse, if you will, replete with a steady stream of sexual innuendo, bodily function gags and a pastiche approach to American crime fiction (the last bit isn’t Wodehouseian, but one could quite imagine a Carry On Up the Big Easy).
If nothing else, this highlights why Wodehouse’s style is so distinctive and remains so seminal; it isn’t so much that his humour is sophisticated or that his plotting is incredible (if you’ve read one Wodehouse novel, you pretty much know how they go). It’s that the language is so pleasurably lyrical, almost musical, and the world he creates is entirely heightened and untouched by anything approaching everyday problems (less still anything as undignified as sex). Bonfiglioli could mimic the style, but then peppering the content with fart jokes, debauchery and lustiness plays to the cheap seats. The results tend towards the sadly adolescent (by comparison and contrast, Douglas Adams steered his love of Wodehouse into the realm of science fiction, and so was able to hook a similar flair for language to material that brought out, rather than curtailed, the big ideas he was playing with). The lowbrow humour operates as a crutch, rather than an effective contrast.
Which isn’t to say I don’t enjoy a good fart gag. But it needs to be employed with judiciously. Too frequently, Mortdecai strays into the field of the BBC’s godawful recent Blandings adaption, which seemed almost perversely at odds with everything that made Wodehouse’ writing so glorious. Mortdecai doesn’t actually shame its source material, of course; indeed, one of its problems that it’s too deferential.
The plot is convoluted, but not in an involving manner and, since this isn’t a full-blown parody of the Mike Myers variety, Aronson is unable to use this to its advantage. Numerous elements survive from the book, just as many more are discarded: the stolen Goya painting (and where it is hidden), the sale of the Rolls, Inspector Martland (as with Charlie, granted a photogenic makeover in the form of Ewan McGregor, but they retain their mutual contempt), the globetrotting.
Others are changed or invented. The Russians are new, while Johanna’s character is effectively substituted for Georgina (Olivia Munn), the nymphomaniac daughter of Krampf (Jeff Goldblum). Johanna (Gwyneth Paltrow) is ready and wed to Charlie when we first meet her (this doesn’t happen until the second novel). Her disapproval of Charlie’s moustache is, of course, a homage to Jeeves’ frequent dismay with Bertie’s clueless fashion choices (which, at one point, include a liperpillar).
Mortdecai is more successful during the first half, before it’s expected to start solving its ungainly plot. It’s not as if Koepp can’t construct a set piece efficiently. Rather, they just don’t have the lightness of touch that could make them fly. There are some good laughs to be had, of course; Charlie trying to persuade Martland to eat some especially stinky cheese, his “sympathetic gag reflex” in response to the effect his moustache has on Johanna, a visit to Spinoza (Paul Whitehouse, continuing his best pal-dom with Depp) at the garage and ending much as it does in the novel, an elaborate car chase that finds Charlie, Jock and Emil (Jonny Pasvolsky) swapping places as it progresses, a meeting with Sir Graham (Michael Culkin) that sees Charlie pinned against a lift wall (“What are you hiding in your belly?”). And capture by the Russians, led by Banshee’s Ulrich Thomson (asked to “Open your balls” Charlie responds, “I shan’t! What does that even mean?”)
The shift to America (“A terribly vulgar place called Los Angeles, apparently located in the far west colonies”) might have been ripe for laughs, but somehow the post-Imperial public school superiority Charlie wields feels terribly laboured (it was dated when Bonfiglioli was offering it in the ’70s) The country-hopping is accompanied by garishly-titled transitions that highlight Koepp’s wanting sense of tone. He has something broad so he thinks the only way to go is to make everything broad. In this regard, check out, or avoid, the score by Mark Ronson and Geoff Zanelli, which is far too big and intrusive, trying to breezily proclaim “THIS IS FUNNY!” (to be fair, the soundtrack is probably quite a good listen in isolation).
What Mortdecai highlights most effectively is the deceptively light tough Mike Myers and Jay Roach brought to Austin Powers. There, Myers knew how to revel in the crudity in a more consistently creative and centralised manner. Probably because he took his cues from the Pink Panther series (as much as Bonds), which at their best knew how to extend a set piece or bit of business to the point where their ridiculousness becomes sublime. Probably also because he built his movies around extended sketches.
Mortdecai occasionally approaches such inspired territory; the aforementioned car chase has a touch of dementedly delightful slapstick, and a later chase finds a food poisoned Jock throwing up over a pursuing car’s windscreen (“Questionable attack, Jock. Spirited, though”). However, too often half a joke is flourished without the zest to make the whole thing sing (a climactic fight at an auction, where a crate is dropped on Charlie, only to collapse around him, leaving him unscathed, is fine, but the rest of the sequence is forgettable).
Depending on your tolerance levels, its Depp who ultimately makes this passable or kills it. For the most part Mortdecai’s double act with Jock is every bit as effective as it is on the page. Bettany continually steals the show as Jock, and if Charlie’s capacity for injuring him is overcooked, it does result in an amusing sequence where his “manservant and thug” is about to lose a finger in Charlie’s stead. Jock has been imbued with an “enviable rate of sexual intercourse” here, probably considered more palatable than his Shirley Temple fixation from the novels.
More lines groan or fall flat (“I had no idea I was so deep in her majesty’s hole”), than hit the spot (“The file was fat, and well handled, like a Welsh barmaid”), but enough do carry to make this easier viewing than the majority of mainstream studio comedies. By this point, there is little discernible difference between what Depp is doing with a Charlie Mortdecai and what Myers does (used to do?) with his comic personas, except the latter is a control freak and Depp clearly isn’t. Lines like “Oh, you pretended to be gentle but you weren’t” or “It made me feel dirty” are all down to Depp’s delivery; this is the closest he has come to a Clouseau or Austin Powers, but he really needed a more sympathetic director.
There’s a rich vein to be tapped in cowardly, aloof and disdainful characters, and Depp relishes hiding under tables and referencing having children as an “odious thought” (he’s been actively into undercutting classic heroes since at least Sleepy Hollow), or insulting a Russian henchman (“Your mother and father only knew each other for a day, and money changed hands”).
I don’t think Depp was going for the Terry-Thomas thing further than the gap tooth visual cue (wisely, he didn’t have a hope in hell of coming close). As for the rest of his appearance, the moustache obsession isn’t nearly as funny as everyone clearly thinks it is, but even that has the odd moment; getting in a lift surrounded by other hirsute types, and comparing notes with Emil (“I was just admiring your Franz Joseph”).
The supporting cast are mostly fine. The likes of Michael Culkin, Whitehouse and Goldblum (it’s amusing to see Goldblum being weird in a “straight” role, just by being Goldblum, acting against Depp who can only be weird by dressing up in an overpowering character suit) are good value. McGregor is badly miscast. He’s the straight man, but he isn’t a natural with comedy, or with RP delivery come to that. It renders the picture lopsided; he’s at his least damaging playing spurned devotee to Johanna.
Paltrow probably nurses more ill feeling than Depp these days, although I can’t say I’ve closely followed all the reasons she’s now apparently a terrible person. She’s blessed with good comic timing, and is entirely delectable throughout (particularly in a policeman’s helmet and scarf)*. It says a lot for her that she’s more than able to hold her own with pronounced screen hogs like Depp and Downey Jr, particularly in roles that are intrinsically less dazzling. Her best scene comes with Michael Byrne’s Duke, keen to show her what he has in the lavatory (“I’ve been trying to get rid of her, but she’s so damned attractive”).
Mortdecai is all set to rank near the top of many a “Worst of 2015” lists, but it doesn’t really deserve such opprobrium (any more than Myers’ slated The Love Guru did). It’s patchy, sure (it’s never going to be rediscovered as cult movie the way, say, Hudson Hawk has been) and Koepp should definitely stick to thrillers in future (it’s safe to say there won’t be any further Charlie Mortdecai movies, at least not with Depp or in the next decade or two), but this is probably as about as good a Kyril Bonfiglioli adaptation as could be hoped for, short of drastically upgrading the source material.
*Addendum 12/04/23: An entirely delectable hermaphrodite. Yes, Gwynie – probably unsurprisingly, since she was the product of a Hollywood dynasty, and such an arrangement for offspring is usually a key part of the deal with the devil – was in the club. Paltrow’s dead, so the recent televised trial makes for something of a smoke-and-mirrors deal that places the Goop-ster alongside the also dead, also-televised-trialled Johnny Depp. So the question of why it took seven years to bring a skiing incident to court is most likely answered “Because we wanted to put Paltrow out there and upfront in the minds of the public again”.