Depp creates a loopy art thief in the mildly amusing ‘Mortdecai’

In “Mortdecai,” Johnny Depp stars as a loopy British aristocrat who attempts to fund his way of life through dodgy art deals and gets called in by his romantic nemesis to solve a murder that has international implications. This isn’t one of those classy sophisticated screwball comedies; this is a movie that makes fun of those as well as the airs of the glamorous tribes–from the aristocracy of England to the rich Americans of Hollywood.

Depp’s Mortdecai reminds me of Bernard Fox’s Dr. Bombay from the TV series of “Bewitched” (1964-1972). Yet the story itself is more like an update of P.G. Wodehouse’s (1881-1875)  Jeeves and Wooster stories into the 1960s.

Reginald Jeeves was the wise butler of the wealthy idle bachelor Bertie Wooster. Mortdecai is an character from four comic thriller novels by Kyril Bonfiglioli. In modern times, estates like Downton Abbey had further reduced staff and horrendous problems keeping up without serfs and with British taxes. The movie is based on the 1973 novel “Don’t Point that Thing at Me” in which Mortdecai is pursued by police over a Goya painting.

Francisco José de Goya Y Lucientes, or the artist we know as Goya, was a court painter for the Spanish royalty and documented the Peninsular War. His style influenced later artists such as Édouard Manet, Pablo Picasso and Francis Bacon.

In the movie, Charlie Mortdecai is a shady art dealer whose estate is badly in debt. He’s begun selling off some of the treasures and heirlooms of his estate. Now, he’s decided he can do without an oil painting of a fox hunt and is sending it off to auction. He has mere days to pay off his tax debt, but his lovely wife Johanna (Gwyneth Paltrow) seems unworried about anything more than the manly moustache Mortdecai has grown (All the Mortdecai men have had them, he protests). It makes her gag and Mortdecai gags in sympathy.

Mortdecai doesn’t have a valet so much as he has a chauffeur/bodyguard/henchman in the form of the scarred Jock Strapp (Paul Bettany). Inspector Martland (Ewan McGregor) of the British Secret Service is in love with Johanna, but from time to time, he uses Mortdecai and his upper crust and underworld connections to unofficially solve cases.

An art restorer has been murdered and Inspector wants to know why. He threatens to turn over a files on Mortdecai’s former escapades, files that are, as Mortdecai puts it “as thick and well-handled as a Welsh barmaid.”  The why involves a legendary Goya painting and the rich men in Los Angeles (Jeff Goldblum), Asia and Russia as well a bushy-moustachio-ed revolutionary (Jonny Pasvolsky).

I haven’t read the Mortdecai novels so I can’t comment on the adaptation of Eric Aronson. Yet it is obvious that Aronson and director David Koepp had an affection for the fobbish and foolish. Think of this as an anti-Downton Abbey with a 1960s-1970s vibe and quips about the class system. The action takes Mortdecai from England to Russia to Los Angeles with an airplane zooming through large three dimensional lettering for the city.

As Johanna, Paltrow has the cool sexy vibe of an Emma Peel,  while Mortdecai himself seems like a 1960s Wooster caught in the same universe as “Get Smart.” This is the Thin Man’s Nick and Nora as a comedy. Mortdecai isn’t dim, so much as foppish and co-dependent in a “feudal” way. He knows his way around the British Library and has a deep knowledge of art and yet he depends upon Jock to handle the drudgeries of life and the dangerous baddies. (“That’s the old feudal spirit.”) Mortdecai also understands people and the art world because “the truth is nice, but rumor is priceless.” Yet Mortdecai has a refined set of morals. Wandering into The Standard, a trendy hotel in Hollywood, he wonders if he’s wandered on to a porn set. When confronted with the nymphomaniac daughter of a rich American, he’s faithful to his wife.

If you don’t mind a bit of British silliness or a bit of silliness at the expense of the British aristocracy and like a funny and convoluted caper, then give this light-hearted trifle a try.

Don’t forget to try out Mortdecai’s rumor mill and begin to spend some priceless rumors of your own.

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