EVERYTHING British, and then some. The dissolute lord and the loyal “manservant”; the manor and the manner; Oxford and Eton; Rolls-Royce and the pin-stripes; old libraries with butlers, and older houses with the famous water-colours — Mortdecai taps into all that as it brings forth a little-known series of four comic-action novels written in the 1970s by author Kyril Bonfiglioli, for a film barely saved from drowning by the charm of its actors.
Leading from the front not surprisingly is Depp, as Charlie Mortdecai. His string of odd-ball characters may now be running on a spool and the moustache he sports here may be a tiresome sub-plot in itself, but it takes a Depp to pull off this incompetent English gent who is a cross between Austin Powers and Bertie Wooster. Even the accent alone would leave one’s teeth on edge in any other actor, but Depp has a way of being so unselfconscious as to put a smile on your face despite yourself.
The cool-as-ice Paltrow plays his intellectually superior and lithely regal wife Johanna, who slips into the glamorous role effortlessly.
McGregor is their old college pal and now MI5 Inspector, Martland, who still carries a flame for Johanna. As the man with all of the qualities but none of the charm of Mortdecai, McGregor is good but easily overshadowed by Depp.
The most sorry figure is cut by Paul Bettany as Depp’s loyal manservant Jock Strapp (yes, that’s his name), who is shot multiple times, driven into, beaten up and almost has his finger cut off, but takes it all smiling for his lord. Jock’s only identity apart from being Mortdecai’s shadow is that women are lining up to sleep with him. If there is anything more between him and Mortdecai as well, Depp is unfortunately too caught up in own character to indulge any such thought.
Mortdecai trades in art trafficking, and when an art restorer is murdered and a Goya she was working on mysteriously disappears, Martland brings in Mortdecai to help crack the case. Mortdecai is neck deep in taxes, and Martland uses that to twist Mortdecai’s hand.
In the course of the painting’s trail, Mortdecai travels from London to Oxford to Moscow to Los Angeles, leaving destruction in his path. An exasperated Johanna is always one step ahead of him, partly because she can’t forgive him for the new moustache he has grown.
The story is predictable, the jokes flat, and the action put there because, well, you can’t very well have a heist otherwise. But more than anything else what Koepp (who has not written this film unlike his other work) invests in are the characters. And because there are so few such as them on screen these days, you don’t mind running into an Englishman on a lazy afternoon fetishising over his rather silly facial hair.
Any resemblance to The Grand Budapest Hotel, the Oscar-nominated film to which Depp was briefly attached, may be coincidental. Any chance Bettany got a foot in the door as the selfless Jock because of his unquestioning self-flagellation in The Da Vinci Code perhaps less so.
Either way, there can be worse afternoons.