A strange failure 

'Mortdecai' flops.

'MORTDECAI': Gwyneth Paltrow and Johnny Depp star.

'MORTDECAI': Gwyneth Paltrow and Johnny Depp star.

The wonderful fact of watching "Mortdecai," a runaway tomato truck of a movie, is that it will compel you to wonder throughout, Who the hell thought this was a good idea? And unlike asking that in so many other areas of life, the answer arrives immediately: Oh! These people on screen, is who! Johnny Depp, who accepted this role as a poncy art dealer with a weird criminal streak. Gwyneth Paltrow, his missus, repulsed by Mortdecai's foray into moustache-growing but otherwise supportive and clever. Ewan McGregor, an MI5 agent who comes to Mortdecai in need of intel to track a stolen painting. David Koepp directed and then put his name among the credits. Eric Aronson wrote the screenplay off Kyril Bonfiglioli's novel. Bonfiglioli wasn't around to see this: The "art dealer, actor, science- fiction editor, champion swordsman and comic novelist," as Wikipedia eulogizes him, died 30 years ago. This all may be partly his doing, then, but it can hardly be considered his fault.

Actually it helps to know that this farce began as a jouncy English comic novel, because otherwise it's difficult to convey the strangeness of its very existence. Part romp, part flop, the sources and successes of the laughs are painfully uneven. One minute, you're not laughing; in the next minute, you're still not laughing. Later, in a distant minute, you find yourself amused. You realize this movie is trying far too hard. Then out of nowhere a throwaway line will tickle a laugh out of you, unexpected and solid, like a basketball that flies into the stands at a game and knocks your beer into your lap. It doesn't arrive as a complete shock, but still, who saw that coming?

At its best, "Mortdecai" works like the best moments of "Austin Powers" movies, down to the chipper mod soundtrack. At its worst, it feels like just about everything else Mike Myers has done since. At least Depp genuinely is debonair, playing a character who, for all his general slapdashery, also knows his way around an art library. Mortdecai also gets the brilliant addition of a brutish, oversexed manservant named Jock (Paul Bettany in pure muscle mode); the pair evince more on-screen chemistry than do Depp and Paltrow. And some of the action is funny? And later on we get to see Jeff Goldblum and Olivia Munn?

That's what's so strange about this entire escapade. It has genuinely bright moments, and overall, it's not an unlikable movie. You sort of root for it — it's just not a good film. Maybe this owes to Depp, forever the up-and-coming prospect we hope will one day tap his full talents, flouncing about like Bugs Bunny crossed with Basil Fawlty. Truly it's hard to stay mad at him, even as his career devolves into ever-stranger choices of projects. It's getting to the point where, if you saw him at a party, you might only nod, pleasantly, hoping not to be seen talking to him for too long.

Maybe this didn't have to be so pitiable. As a send-up of drawing-room upper-crusters, this could've found a following among "Downton Abbey" fans if no one else. The "Mortdecai" novels, as a series, might've spawned sequels. Instead, audiences saw the smoke billowing off this wreckage from weeks away and, inspired perhaps by the smell of burning tires, avoided it in favor of more "American Sniper." Likely this installment of "Mortdecai" will be your only chance to see the character on the big screen, and that for a short time only.



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