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Immaculately groomed case file #38: Johnny Depp in Mortdecai

Welcome to the first new entry in My World Of Flops in a little over two years. I suspended this column in 2013 for a very good reason: The world inexplicably stopped producing flops, failures, and successes of anything other than the smashing and extremely public variety. For a brief epoch in President Obama’s Socialist utopia, every film, book, television show, and album was a resounding commercial triumph and a beloved cult item.

This was good news for consumers who suddenly discovered that every entertainment option was a winner. For a blissful period, Americans could turn on their TVs to any new show, secure in the knowledge that everything on television would respect their intelligence and talk up to them in a voice that was smart, engaged, and passionately committed to social justice. At the multiplex, every film was of Oscar quality at least, leading the Academy to briefly considering expanding the list of Best Picture candidates from 10 to 10,000.

Then Johnny Depp had to go and fuck it up for everybody by re-introducing the concept of failure and disappointment and unforgivable awfulness back into cinema. The Johnny Depp vehicle that conclusively brought this new golden age of quality cinema to a screeching halt was a leaden concoction called Mortdecai, a box-office bomb that was met with lots of negative reviews. (The A.V. Club’s was one of the kinder ones.) At first I thought that Mortdecai was an outlier, but as I researched Depp’s career, I realized that even while everyone else was soaring, he was furtively (and not so furtively) failing in the films he made, even during this blessed epoch. This should not come as a surprise.

In the ’90s, Depp was a critical darling who escaped the strictures of being a pretty, pouty-lipped teen idol to deliver some of the best performances of the era in movies like Cry Baby, Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, and Dead Man. But over the past decade, he went from being one of the best things in some of the best movies of the past 25 years to being the worst thing in Tusk, Kevin Smith’s 2014 Canadian-set horror movie about a sadist who tries to turn an Apple pitchman into a walrus. He went from being his Don Juan DeMarco co-star Marlon Brando’s creative heir to being someone whose terrible over-acting makes a Kevin Smith movie about a tortured walrus-man even worse than it would have been without him.

After years of critical success and resounding commercial failures, Depp changed course and starred in 2003’s Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl, a motion picture based on a popular amusement park ride. Suddenly, Mr. Box Office Poison became Mr. Box Office. I enjoyed Depp’s Oscar-nominated turn as dissolute pirate Captain Jack Sparrow, but the film’s enormous financial success was probably the worst thing that could have happened to his career. Depp is a huge box-office star at this point, but his films that literally gross billions (the Pirates Of The Caribbean sequels, Alice In Wonderland) are among the most forgettable of his career, and they hastened his swift descent into groaning self-parody.

Depp increasingly became the sum of his character’s affectations. Like his frequent collaborator Tim Burton, Depp has become depressingly predictable in his eccentricity. An actor who once effortlessly surprised critics and audiences with each performance has become a superstar whose characters seem to be constructed using Johnny Depp-themed Mad Libs. Start with a nationality or ethnicity other than his own, whether it’s the French-Canadian of Tusk, the Native American of The Lone Ranger, or the Englishman of Mortdecai. Next add a distractingly over-the-top stylistic affectation, be it the dead bird he wears as a hat in The Lone Ranger, the beret and bushy mustache he sports in Tusk, or the lovingly maintained handlebar mustache that is his character’s defining trait in Mortdecai. Top it off with a silly accent, and you have a character Depp will love playing and that audiences might be able to tolerate, depending on their appetite for runaway quirks divorced from anything resembling plausible human psychology.

Depp’s silly-but-not-at-all-hilarious mustache wasn’t just the primary draw of Mortdecai’s advertising campaign: It was the film’s advertising campaign. Mortdecai is pretty much Mustache: The Movie, as well as Johnny Depp’s sad professional decline in highly concentrated cinematic form.

But Mortdecai’s humor isn’t solely dependent on audiences finding Depp’s eccentric facial hair inherently funny. Much of the film’s humor derives from finding Englishness just as inveterately funny as unusual mustaches. And since the film focuses on a very English Englishman with a mustache, it is so utterly pleased with itself that it doesn’t feel the need to bother with actual jokes.

Depp, who also produced, stars as Charlie Mortdecai, an English gentleman, scamp, scoundrel, ne’er do well, and idle child of privilege who works, when the fancy strikes him, in the art business. He mainly devotes himself to a life of decadence and pleasure, content that his very capable henchman/sidekick Jock (Paul Bettany) and wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) will bail him out of any jam.

Depp begins the film by purring the opening gambit in what frustratingly turns out to be wall-to-wall narration in a British accent so over-the-top and preposterously affected, it’s as if the voice wears a monocle. Though based on a comic novel by British author Kyril Bonfiglioni (one of a series devoted to the character of Mortdecai but not, shockingly, on Bonfiglioni’s The Great Moustache Mystery), the film feels equally inspired by the treasure trove of campy, tongue-in-cheek spy movies that sprung up in England and the United States in the ’60s in the wake of James Bond’s success.

Like Austin Powers, Mortdecai is essentially an imitation of an imitation. It doesn’t even have the ambition and vision to rip off James Bond; instead it’s content to riff pointlessly on the Our Man Flint series and The Ipcress File and make a fetish of Englishness. In the opening scene, the insufferable titular character makes a point of introducing his mustache to a group of Asian criminals he has ripped off with the words, “This little bit of magic is my mustache.” It might seem strange for a man, even one who cultivates his eccentricities as aggressively as the film’s hero does, to introduce his mustache to acquaintances, but it’s not that unusual considering that Mortdecai’s mustache is arguably the film’s main character. It plays more of a role in the film’s comedy than Mortdecai himself, who seems to be on hand mainly to keep the mustache in place. (And because a film about a floating, disembodied, sentient handlebar mustache would be ridiculous, albeit far more promising in theory than Mortdecai is in practice.)

As tends to be his custom, Mortdecai’s obliviousness and greed gets him into a situation that the furious fists of Jock get him out, as the Asian gangsters descend upon Mortdecai and Jock dispatches them swiftly and forcefully. I found myself feeling sorry for supporting players like Bettany, Ewan McGregor (who plays an MI5 agent and the protagonist’s romantic rival), and Paltrow (who, like Madonna, is English not by birth but by pretension), all of whom had thriving careers at one point but are doomed to spend all of Mortdecai shivering thanklessly in the giant shadow of Depp’s mustache-shaped ego. And why couldn’t a movie this obsessed with mustaches find a way to implement product placement for Lyft into its action?

Bettany’s Jock functions as something of an oversexed, well-muscled human deus ex machina. He swoops in wherever and whenever he’s needed to save the day, then disappears so that Depp can continue to hog the screen with his infernal mugging. It’s tempting to argue that Jock’s superhuman efficiency drains the film of any suspense, but that would imply that anyone in the world could care about Mortdecai’s happiness or survival, other than himself.

The film’s asinine plot, which all but dares audiences to care, revolves around a missing Goya painting that attracts the attention of a group of desperate and disparate characters. This somehow leads to an international adventure that takes the film’s debauched hero from his homeland to Russia to the United States.

Early in Mortdecai’s first act, a painting of a dog with Winston Churchill’s face makes an appearance before climactically returning in the third act. It could be argued that the painting is a commentary on the British leader’s famously bulldog-like features, or tenacity, but that requires an awful lot of mental exertion for very little payoff.

In another sequence that epitomizes the film’s strained wackiness, Mortdecai enters an elevator and is overwhelmed when everyone on it has facial hair every bit as extravagant and eccentric as his own. This bit obeys the law of comic escalation: If one man with a mustache is as funny as the film desperately wants/needs it to be, then a whole group of mustachioed men is inherently gut-busting. The elevator bit also recalls Saturday Night Live’s stubborn belief that there is no better way to flesh out the world of a recurring character (or at least earn some cheap laughs of recognition) than by introducing a character that acts exactly like them, or at least shares their most notable eccentricity. You like Church Lady? Well meet her pint-sized relative, li’l Church Lady (played by SNL guest host Fred Savage)! On a similar note, Mortdecai seems to think that if you’re amused by mustache guy, then you will die of laughter from a mustache guy meeting a whole bunch of other mustache guys. This bit is at least identifiable as half a gag, and represents one of the only moments in the film where its shamelessness and excess are at least mildly amusing.

From the moment he first introduces his mustache to the underwhelmed Asian gangsters, the film’s protagonist irritates everyone he encounters. Ideally, narration affords us more insight into a character’s psyche and motivations than dialogue could provide alone. But its extensive use here just means audiences roped in by the film’s ingenious mustache-based advertising campaign have to spend 100 or so minutes inside the mind of an obnoxious blowhard as in love with the sound of his own voice as he is with his facial hair.

His mustache may be an inexplicable source of pride and identity to Depp’s character, but everyone else in the film and, let’s be honest, watching the film, finds it ugly and obnoxious, particularly Paltrow, who refuses to have sex with him while he’s sporting it. In another context, this might come off as winning self-deprecation. Instead it feels like the film is understandably annoyed with its lead character, and itself, from the get-go. Yet it feels obligated to go through the motions all the same.

Mortdecai director David Koepp has proven himself a solid commercial pro in the past with his screenplays for movies like Jurassic Park, Spider-Man, and War Of The Worlds. Yet Koepp’s otherwise-sure sensibility fails him here. The real auteur of the film appears to be Depp, and while Mortdecai is a weirdly self-indulgent anomaly in Koepp’s filmography, it fits in perfectly with Depp’s late-period output, which puts a stronger emphasis on haberdashery and sartorial excess than on character or plot. I wouldn’t be surprised if Depp didn’t even interact with Koepp on the set of Mortdecai, preferring instead to focus on the three collaborators who would play more of a role in his performance: the costume designer, the hairdresser, and, most importantly, the mustache wrangler. If that wasn’t an actual job beforehand, Mortdecai’s relentless emphasis on mustaches probably made it necessary.

Mortdecai occupies such a strange time-warped conception of the present that when the film briefly flashes back to Depp, Paltrow, and McGregor’s college days in the early ’90s (complete with Spin Doctors’ “Two Princes” on the soundtrack) it feels like an anachronism since, stylistically at least, the film seems stuck in the go-go England of the ’60s. The Austin Powers movies had their hero cryogenically frozen for decades to explain why a man in 1997 behaved like a mod swinger from the ’60s; Mortdecai’s hero is just as stuck in the love decade, but the film doesn’t feel any need to explain why he embodies England’s past so thoroughly.

With Mortdecai, Depp continues to morph slowly but surely into late-period Mike Myers (another actor whose extraordinary early promise got buried in a quirk avalanche of garish costumes, hairstyles, accents, and makeup), to the point where it must have taken Depp extraordinary effort to resist the natural urge to spout Austin Powers’ catchphrases (“Yeah baby!”, “Shagadelic,” “Do I make you horny?”) whenever he was on set. Mortdecai is the terrible third sequel to Austin Powers that Myers hasn’t gotten around to making yet, and one late-period Mike Myers is about all our culture can tolerate, or should.

Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success? Failure