Mortdecai didn’t deserve all the hate thrown at it when it came out. It’s not a great movie, but it wasn’t anywhere as bad as the reviews which told everyone it was the second coming of Hitler, instead of a modern Pink Panther caper that sucked a lot less than the Steve Martin Pink Panthers.
But Mortdecai fell victim to the critical backlash mass.
A successful actor or director becomes known for one gimmick. The gimmick is irritating, but initially it’s also entertaining. Like Johnny Depp doing a wacky character, Robin Williams going for cheap tears instead of laughs or George Lucas making CG Star Wars cartoons. Then the backlash builds with every movie until it blows.
And it blows all over a movie that might not even deserve it. Like the critical backlash mass building against Robin Williams over Patch Adams and exploding over Jakob the Liar. Or Johnny Depp in Mortdecai.
The hate had built up with the fourth Pirates movie that no one outside China wanted. It hissed to a boil with Dark Shadows and The Lone Ranger, both flopped, and then exploded in violent rage with Mortdecai.
Depp’s Charlie Mortdecai is the weakest part of the movie, but also the part that holds the rest of the movie together. The script isn’t great and the movie could have used a bigger and longer climax (one of the few movies these days that you can say that about), but most of the working parts were okay. Visually it looked good. The cast was good, especially Paul Bettany’s Jock. And most of the jokes worked okay if you like them big, goofy and obvious.
But all the parts rubbed up against Depp’s Mortdecai. And Depp wearing wacky outfits and makeup already rubbed too many critics raw. Imagine Mortdecai with Jim Carrey in the lead and it could have been even more annoying, but it wouldn’t have been showered with the same amount of critic rage. They reacted to Depp’s Mortdecai as an extension of every annoying mannered character from Willy Wonka to Sweeney Todd.
Mortdecai needed its own Peter Sellers. An actor who could just dive into the role sincerely, instead of prancing around with a mannered, “Look at me, I’m acting so goofy” air of an unfunny class clown in a high school production of Pirates of Penzance. Maybe Robert Downey Jr. could have done it. But Depp can just do exactly what he’s been doing since that long forgotten good Pirates of the Caribbean movie. It’s all he’s ever going to do now.
But Mortdecai was still fun. It wasn’t a great movie. Or an especially good one. It wasn’t even Hudson Hawk. But it was up there with a decent Moonlighting episode. What happened to it is the difference between viewing movies on their own or as part of a dynamic cultural dialogue. And that’s how critics, and everyone is a critic now, see them.
Mortdecai stopped being its own movie and became an extension of Depp’s other wacky movies and that became an extension of a trend in movies that had to be stamped out.
Depp recovered and went on working. Big actors are hard to take down. And Black Mass was just more of the same. And there’s an unfunny Depp video as Trump and another Pirates of the Caribbean sequel.
It’s the shakiest movies that are easiest to take down. Movies with no built in audience anyway. Like a caper about a wacky British art dealer and thief. Or a movie in which Adam Sandler plays a cobbler who can become other people. The stars go on, but the blowback destroys a smaller fun movie and the careers of smaller, maybe fun people.
Is anyone going to let David Koepp direct again? Would Tom McCarthy’s carer have survived if Spotlight hadn’t been in the can? Critics find a release in lashing out at annoying actors for being annoying, but the actors don’t go away, the people who took a risk and tried to make a different kind of movie and were lucky enough to get a major star to sign on, only to be wrecked by his backlash, who more often go away.