Posted on January 23, 2015 at 9:36 am

Copyright Lionsgate 2015
Copyright Lionsgate 2015

There’s a lot of noise in “Mortdecai” but what I remember most is the silences where everything pauses for a moment to allow the audience to laugh without drowning out the next witty riposte. Nope, just crickets, as there was no laughter, just grim resolve on the part of those of us professionally obligated to stick it out through the bitter end.

“Mortdecai” is based on series of 1970’s comic novels by Kyril Bonfignioli about an art dealer with connections to the upper class and the criminal underground, which provide him with many opportunities for mischief. I’m sure they are all high-spirited and merry and racy and fun, but by the evidence of this film they are also dated, overly precious, and not susceptible to translation into film. Perhaps it was possible decades ago and in print rather than on screen to find it funny when someone is repeatedly shot and injured, often accidentally by his employer, or when someone else is shot and killed. But not now and not like this.

Maybe gag reflexes brought on by Mortdecai’s mustache and widespread barfing brought on by tampering with a sumptuous buffet can be funny when left to the imagination. Not likely, but clever writing might just make it possible as our imaginations are very good at filtering descriptions according to our comfort levels. It’s another thing entirely when it is unavoidably seen and heard. Cue the crickets.

Over the past few years, with the exception of a brief appearance in “Into the Woods” Johnny Depp has made one catastrophically bad movie after another. As proof of the adage that no good deed goes unpunished, the success of his offbeat, fey Captain Jack Sparrow, initially objected to by the studio execs who were very unhappy with the early footage, has given Depp license to go way over the top with quirks and twitches in films like “The Lone Ranger” and “Tusk.” As I noted in my review, in “Transcendence” his performance was so robotic when he was playing a human that it hardly made a difference when he turned into a computer. Here, as the title character, a caricature of a pukka sahib colonial twit/Brit, embodies the fatal combination of profound unpleasantness with the expectation of being seen as irresistibly adorable not just by the other characters but by the audience.

Paul Bettany provides the film’s only bright moments as Jock Strapp, Mordecai’s Swiss army knife of a sidekick, as adept at ironing his lordship’s handkerchiefs as he is at hand-to-hand combat, getaway car driving, anticipating that Lady Mortdecai (Gwyneth Paltrow, looking like the cover of Town and Country in very fetching riding gear) will want the guest room made up for her husband as soon as she sees his new mustache, and bedding many, many, many ladies. Ewan McGregor does his valiant best but is wasted as the Oxbridge-educated MI5 official (and former classmate of Mortdecai, with a crush on Lady M). Director David Koepp, whose “Premium Rush” was a nifty little thriller with unexpected freshness and wit, has stumbled here with a film that is badly conceived in every way, like its title character imagining itself as clever and endearing when in reality it is dull and repellent.

Parents should know that this movie includes strong and crude language, drinking and comic drunkenness, sexual references and situations, some crude, bodily function humor, comic peril and violence including guns, with characters injured and killed.

Family discussion: What was the best way to resolve the issue of the mustache? Who should have the Goya painting?

If you like this, try: The Mortdecai Trilogy and the Austin Powers films

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Based on a book Comedy Crime Satire
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