Any connoisseur of bad movies knows there are two types of major creative failures.
A decade ago, near the dawn of the streaming age, the mere act of being able to beam movies directly to your television seemed like a form of magic. The technical quality wasn’t always great, and the offerings themselves weren’t always spectacular, but there was a respectable variety of choices to pass the time, classics commingling with a smattering of old crap and recent-ish releases. Now that streaming has become the dominant method of viewing, its primacy has led also to a retread of the same kind of garish over-stimulation that has long made surfing cable TV such a nightmare, only amplified. Everything is theoretically available, except for the millions of things that are not, a fact the platforms seem increasingly intent upon distracting viewers from, while also force-feeding them their specific flavors of garbage. In this environment, the Vaults of Streaming Hell are not some cursed realm you must seek out, but a place you may find yourself lured into at any moment.
Proof of this came a few weeks back as I tabbed over to the Movies section of Hulu for the first time, curious as to what off-brand oddities might await me. I did not have to look far; the service’s top pick for me was the semi-recent Johnny Depp flop Mortdecai, which gained more recognition as meme fodder – a farcical symbol for an actorly shtick pushed far past its expiration date – than it did for its actual content. Immediately curious, both about the film’s specific qualities and what kind of selection errors I had committed to deserve this recommendation, I decided to dig in. As is often the case with movies held up as spectacular bombs, the results are less outlandishly terrible than flat, drab and boring.
Any connoisseur of bad movies knows there are two types of major creative failures. The good side of the spectrum involves folly, bizarre choices and general overreach, spawning films which attempt something spectacular and fall flat on their faces. The worst of the worst are the exemplars of safe, focus-grouped dreck that, due to some mysterious fault of their own execution, end up separated from the pack and held up for abject mockery. Often, these films are of no lower quality than similar ones which end up as well-reviewed hits. Mortdecai is an example of this, a roundly mediocre adaptation of an out-of-fashion book series, which nonetheless provides roughly the same amount of laughs as most contemporary studio comedies (somewhere in the neighborhood of three), pilloried by an audience that was simply tired of it’s star’s antics.
To get to the film’s actual content: I for some reason was under the impression (perhaps inspired by Eddie Murphy and Mike Myers’ similar creative falloffs) that this was some kind of frivolous caper flick in which Depp played multiple roles. In fact, he sticks to just one, a tiresome upper class toff who, as with many of Myers’ creations, seems like an amalgamated parody of British cultural elements, but is really just a caricature of one thing in particular. In this case that’s the mid-century comedian Terry-Thomas, whose self-targeting parody of aristocratic fragility was far less winking and much more genuine than Depp’s. In keeping with the source material – Kyril Bonfiglioli’s ‘70s era re-spinning of Jeeves and Wooster types tangled up in Bond-style espionage – it’s also the kind of musty reference that explains how this landed so far afield of general audience interest.
Perpetually in debt, Depp’s titular patrician lives in some kind of vague landed gentry limbo with his wife Johanna (Gwyneth Paltrow), carrying out a winsome part-time career as a crooked art dealer, clinging to the veneer of a palatial estate and a killing machine manservant named Jock Strapp (Paul Bettany). Reuniting with his old school chum Alistair Martland (Ewan MacGregor), he becomes embroiled in the search for a stolen Goya painting, lending his personal artistic expertise in exchange for 10% of the potential insurance payout. A rare resurgence of what might have been classic Ealing Studios material, with Alec Guinness as the brittle, caddish lead Mortdecai could have been a lot of fun if handled properly. Instead it’s mostly just dumb, blandly directed with a plot that drags, although in no way terrible enough to earn any special merit.
People, it seems, are just burnt out on Depp, a reasonable sort of feeling after five Pirates of the Caribbean films and counting. There’s also the lingering abuse allegations and general stink of dissipated impropriety which have left his career swathed in a heady fug of fumes in search of a decisive igniting match. The specific issue here, however, is that Depp’s entire comic platform is tired. At his peak, the novelty of a star with leading-man looks and a facility for oddball, silent-comedy style mugging imbued his roles with an eccentric flair. Yet this has now been verging on annoying for going on two decades, and as Depp continues to age and go broader to offset that fact, he becomes more suited to side-man duties than someone tasked with carrying an entire movie.
Still, the farcical style pursued here is one that could have worked here with the right balance, if Mortdecai were executed more as an ensemble comedy, with the silliness spread around a bit. But director David Koepp, known more for his screenwriting work, doesn’t have the skill to wrangle his star’s outlandish performance into the proper proportion. Instead it stands as a flashy spectacle that strains hard for laughs as everyone else is forced to play straight to compensate, turning the entire thing into an over-broad satire with no immediate target or purpose.
With this in mind, it’s not too far of a reach to compare Depp’s fading status to the that of the streaming service. Once young and beautiful, they charmed us with the ability to present easy gratification, the total package with a sly sense of self-mocking humor. Now a bit haggard, bloated with added heft but no accompanying substance, the essence of this performance has been chiseled down to its desperate core, operating off a gimmicky, solipsistic obsession with drawing audience eyes at any expense.
Yet like Depp, the dozens of streaming platforms that dominate our lives also refuse to disappear, and neither will likely be going anywhere, barring shocking, unforeseen developments. He’s expected to appear in another Pirates film sometime soon, again offering rich dollops of devilish badinage pitched hard toward the rafters. Curious and lazy, we may later find ourselves watching this or something like it, on a lonely Tuesday night when resistance to pre-selected recommendations is low, effortlessly slipping into the warm embrace of Streaming Hell.