Defending ‘Mortdecai,’ the Best Comedy That Critics Love to Hate

mortdecaiThe 2015 Johnny Depp movie Mortdecai is a wild, madcap character comedy powered by the presence of a leading man who loses himself with gleeful abandon in the absurd and wacky title role. Depp and Mortdecai is right up there with Mike Myers and Austin Powers, or Will Ferrell in Anchorman, which are unassailable classics.

I’m serious. Hear me out.

I realize the reputation that Mortdecai, well, I don’t want to say enjoys. It’s often included in lists of things like “biggest bombs in Hollywood history” and “movies big stars regret doing” and “the worst movie since Gigli.” This simply isn’t fair. When these bad movies come out, they arrive in theaters with a ton of baggage that’s been piled on so audiences are ready to hate it. It’s almost a form of guerrilla marketing to spread the word that From Justin to Kelly or The Adventures of Pluto Nash is going to be bad. Which they were. Mortdecai is far more quotable, and ridiculous on purpose, than any of those other legendarily “bad movies.”

Savaged for being another entry into the admittedly increasingly tiresome sub-genre of Zany Johnny Depp in a Weird Outfit Movies, Mortdecai is not quite that. The thing is that it’s very different from the kinds of comedies that are popular now, and it’s a throwback to a style that was only briefly popular several decades ago, and pretty much only in England. Mortdecai feels like a late period Peter Sellers movie, all set pieces and sketches and making fun of a crusty character who has no idea that he’s an idiot. The relationship between Charlie Mortdecai (Depp) and his manservant, Jock (Paul Bettany), adds in a welcome and extremely British Jeeves and Wooster dynamic. In other words, this movie would have been a big hit if it had been made in England in about 1972.

The plot is kind of complicated—too complicated for a modern-day comedy, but right in line with that of an old, European-style farce. Charlie Mortdecai is an art dealer facing bankruptcy, and the plot involves an international art heist, forged paintings, kidnappings, murders, and wealthy Americans, the British government, and Russian mobsters, all surrounding a lost masterpiece by Spanish master Francisco Goya. But none of that really matters. Mortdecai is a vehicle to present Depp-as-Charlie Mortdecai into a series of fish-out-of-water situations that either hilariously, almost nihilistically, take him down a peg, or allow him to use his cutting British wit to take others down a peg. Among the standout sketch-scenes:

  • Mortdecai and Jock check into a hipster hotel in Los Angeles so rife with model types in bikinis that Mortdecai chuffs (a proper British word) that he wonders aloud if he’s “wandered onto the set of a pornographic film.” But since this is a hipster hotel, Mortdecai soon becomes overwhelmed with silent delight when he finds himself in an elevator full of dudes with mustaches more absurd than even his own.

  • Some of Mortdecai’s encounters with the world he does not understand are downright ludicrous. He distracts a guard dog with a piece of meat, but keeps calling the animal “a beast.” Mortdecai has never seen a dog before. That is weird, and that is hilarious.
  • When British government agent Martland (Ewan McGregor) is caught awkwardly flirting with Johanna Mortdecai (Gwyneth Paltrow, who nobody likes but I like because she was cool enough to do Mortdecai), he stammers “no, no, no, no” for like a minute. It’s one of those things that goes on so long that it stops being funny and keeps going until it’s funny again. (Also, Ewan McGregor has excellent comic timing, and we don’t get to see him in nearly enough comedies.)
  • The most daring and delightfully weird thing about Mortdecai is its deep commitment to mustache jokes. The marketing campaign for the movie emphasized how Johnny Depp had a silly mustache. One would think the mustache would be joked about once or twice. Not so. The mustache jokes are constant. There’s a monologue about mustaches at the very beginning of the movie. Mortdecai, in classic British gentlemen fashion, delivers quotes about facial hair, including “Kissing a man without a mustache is like eating an egg without salt,” which he ridiculously attributes to Margaret Thatcher. But the best mustache joke is that it makes Johanna dry heave whenever she comes near it. And her gagging in turn makes him dry heave. It’s great.

Amongst the intrigue-laden plot and silly comic sequences, Mortdecai has quite a lot of action sequences. Because it’s a farce, several people are callously murdered, and there are car chase scenes and daring escapes, and Mortdecai manages to get Jock brutally injured several times.

Now, does Gigli have any of that?

Brian Boone edits the Splitsider Humor Section.

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