107 min., rated R.
"Mustaches are hee-larious," seems to be the long running gag in "Mortdecai," a would-be comedy of wit and sophistication starring Johnny Depp as the art-dealing, London-residing twit Lord Charlie Mortdecai. That tiresome joke of the lead character's new curly mustachio is repeated over and over, which is more than enough to last one for the year. Working from a trifling script by Eric Aronson (whose other sole credit is 2001's Lance Bass rom-com "On the Line"), adapting Kyril Bonfiglioli's novel "Don't Point That Thing at Me," director David Koepp (2012's "Premium Rush") seems to be at a complete loss when it comes to bringing energy to a comedy, what with the leaden pacing and tone-deaf comic timing. It turns out that both Koepp and star Johnny Depp have made their "The Pink Panther"—the 2006 Steve Martin remake, that is, not the 1963 Peter Sellers gem—and, in hindsight, that strenuous slapstick farce seems slyer and less painful than "Mortdecai." It's quite terrible. Quite.
Caddish, foolish artistocrat Charlie Mortdecai (Johnny Depp) is up to his mustache in debt with lovely but domineering wife Johanna (Gwyneth Paltrow), who gags at the very sight of her husband's new facial hair. When a female art restorer is murdered and a valuable Goya painting stolen, Mortdecai is enlisted by MI3 Inspector Martland (Ewan McGregor), an old school rival who still grows weak at the eyes for Johanna. Setting out to change his financial status and track down the thief (or thieves), Mortdecai must travel from London to Moscow to Los Angeles with his womanizing manservant Jock (Paul Bettany), who remains faithful to his boss even if he's always inadvertently injured. Of course, along the way, our cluelessly out-of-touch hero is kidnapped and saved, seduced and saved, rinse and repeat.
Neither edgy nor bawdy enough to warrant its R-rating, "Mortdecai" might have worked as a breezy, purposefully daft romp. Instead, the end result is so discouragingly flat that it can only be anointed a deadening dud, proof that talent and money do not a good movie make. (For British wit done right: run, do not walk, to "Paddington.") For most of its laugh-free 107 minutes, the film just sits there, growing more interminable, that to call the summation of the jokes scattershot would be too generous. The tone is light and silly at best, but the problem with replicating the style of a '60s farce in 2015 is how forced and straining it all comes off. It can be done, but this time, you can practically smell the sausage being made. What's more, the film goes wrong on just about every level. The caper loosely guiding the plot by a thread is so apathetic that one just wishes the filmmakers would have focused on building good jokes instead. The supposedly crackling dialogue is as limp as a wet noodle. Bits of buffoonery fall flat the first time (i.e. Mortdecai accidentally puts a car into reverse) or go on past their prime, including Russian thugs asking Mortdecai to "open [his] balls" for electrocution. There is exactly all but one mildly amusing moment in an elevator inside Los Angeles' The Standard Hotel, and yet, it is still at the expense of Mortdecai's mustache. This one works because of how it's based more on silent observation rather than blatant mentioning of the damn 'stache. Every other time, someone just has to comment on the elephant in the room: Johanna disapproves, saying it looks like "a vagina" on his face or a piece of "excrement," and an art aficionado points out that "something died on [his] upper lip." And, finally, who was "Mortdecai" even made for? Let's just split the difference and say it won't please anyone.
Everyone has an opinion on when Johnny Depp stopped trying during his illustrious career, but, for this reviewer, "Mortdecai" is arguably the last nail in the coffin. Here, as the bumbling title character, Depp is all tic-laden shtick and overbearing affectation, mugging, grinning and tee-heeing around until his face hurts. This comedic performance should have the viewer in stitches, but frankly, it becomes such a precious, annoyingly lame put-on after the first couple of scenes, as if director David Koepp never heard of reining in a thespian before. Mortdecai is the center of the picture, and the character himself is just so off-putting and charmless that one wishes he'd go away for good. Gwyneth Paltrow is game and as fetching as the script allows her to be playing Mortdecai's wife Johanna, but she doesn't really have a thing to do, except to look great in riding breeches and act disgusted around her husband's thigh tickler. Ewan McGregor looks baffled but smiles on as Martland, but Paul Bettany is a rare bright spot as Mortdecai's grumbling Jeeves-ish bodyguard Jock. Others, like Jeff Goldblum in one scene as Mortdecai's art-dealing billionaire client Krampf and Olivia Munn as his equestrian/nymphomaniac daughter Georgina, are left adrift in perfunctory, one-joke parts.
Equipped with a wasteful $60 million budget, "Mortdecai" surely looks like a slick, professional Hollywood production. Even the only potential grace notes are attractive location shooting in the UK, however, a flight there would be more satisfying. Not to throw all of the blame on Depp, who also exists as a producer on the film, but he seems to think he's giving the public what it wants. "Mortdecai" ends up only confirming that Depp has officially hit a brick wall and in desperate need of a career overhaul that doesn't involve quirky wigs and teeth, accents and…mustaches. If distributor Lionsgate goes through with creating a franchise out of Mortdecai's hijinks, well, they should just put the kibosh on the whole horrid idea. If anything, "Mortdecai" gives audiences no reason to remember its name, unless it's for being the face of cinematic travesties and coming close to getting no laughs at all.