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Standards? With A Farce Like 'Mortdecai' Who Needs 'Em

David Appleby
Courtesy of Lionsgate
Johnny Depp stars as Charlie Mortdecai in 'Mortdecai.'

Mortdecai, the latest film with Johnny Depp, is not terrific. Much of it is actually quite dreadful. The film's been called dull and excruciating, which may be reasonable comments about a movie that's got Depp playing a ridiculously pretentious Englishman fussing about his waxed moustache, bouncing his eyebrows and sniffing phony Britishisms like "well done, Old Chap."

I spent the first half of the film fighting with myself not to walk out, but slowly, my self-respect began to weaken. Against all common sense, I was starting to laugh once in a while, and ever since I saw the picture, I find that my recollections are pretty amusing.

To say that you might like the film better after you leave, is not a rave review, and I don't want to mislead anyone into thinking that Mortdecai is either a laugh riot or high art, but it has its moments. Another way to put it is that if you like jokes about gas and vomit, Mortdecai might be the ticket.

The story hinges on Depp's character, Charlie Mortdecai, owing the British government millions of pounds and cooking up a scheme with a missing Goya painting that should get him enough dough to pay off the debt and have something leftover. For helpers, Mortdecai has his wife Johanna (Gwynneth Paltrow) and a manservant named Jock Strapp (Paul Bettany). There's a lot of fairly incoherent careening around, stuff with not-too-bright British intelligence agents, and far too much of the action has poor Jock Strapp shot over and over, often by Mortdecai himself. Jock is also banged in the head, dumped here and there, yet always he comes right back to serve his preening master.

Mortdecai is farce, which means it's by design exaggerated, nonsensical, ridiculous, absurd – and probably also annoying. Its mix of these things is relentless. The film never slows down, never gives the audience a break, and basically attempts to pummel us all into submission - which it does quite well.

It's like the Mike Myers Austin Powers movies, which certainly have their moments, but are also absurd and unrelenting.

Among the things people say about Mortdecai are that it's stupid, unrealistic and that Gwynneth Paltrow's British accent isn't very good. Of course it's stupid and unrealistic – that's what it is – and something tells me that Ms. Paltrow could probably do a decent British accent if she wanted to, but here it's a bad accent on purpose. Everything in the film is bad and overdone.

Mortdecai isn't supposed to be important or meaningful either; it's like the Jackass pictures. When you laugh, you laugh in spite of yourself.

As an audience we can be narrow and pretentious. Our self-censorship kicks in too easily, and I suspect that we are all of us prone to shaping our tastes toward what we think others will consider acceptable. A dear friend, who happens to be a documentary cinematographer well-known for socially and politically important work, describes sneaking in alone to the last show at an out of the way Manhattan theater, finding a seat in the back corner and laughing wildly at Jackass 3-D.

There are times when you just have to drop all notions of your good name and reputation, and laugh your butt off. It makes the rest of life a lot easier when you can do that. A farce like Mortdecai is an invitation to do it.

It's a relief to be freed from good taste, even for only a hundred minutes.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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