It's hard to say exactly who the audience is for the zany curio "Mortdecai." But those who do find their way into this supremely silly action-mystery caper are in for a few grins if not laughs thanks largely to the deft — and daft — performance of Johnny Depp in the title role.
As goofball English aristocrat, puckish bon vivant and underhanded art dealer Charlie Mortdecai, Depp channels such British funnymen as Peter Sellers and Terry-Thomas (replete with the latter's gap teeth), as well as Mike Myers in the "Austin Powers" series, while still putting his own irrepressible spin on the whole madcap charade. It's limber comedic work from one of acting's best-known chameleons.
And if the rest of the movie, directed by David Koepp ("Premium Rush," "Secret Window"), isn't quite as memorable as Depp's screwball stylings, it's a mostly zippy, well turned-out concoction. Translated: It's better than expected.
With a script by Eric Aronson based on the 1973 Kyril Bonfiglioli novel, "Don't Point That Thing at Me," "Mortdecai" is set in the present but drips with a swinging '60s vibe, including an enjoyably spoofy retro score. The story finds Mortdecai and his lovely, far brainier wife, Johanna (Gwyneth Paltrow, returning to her "Shakespeare in Love" accenting), facing an 8-million pound tax debt and forced to liquidate the contents of their country manor.
Enter British Secret Service officer Alistair Martland (a dashing Ewan McGregor), who reluctantly hires old college frenemy Mortdecai to help recover a purloined Goya painting whose restorer was just murdered. It also puts Martland back in front of the fetching Johanna, for whom the MI5 agent has long carried a torch.
The mission leads Mortdecai, his loyal and tough shag-happy manservant, Jock (Paul Bettany), and later Johanna on a globe-trotting search. They go from London to Moscow to, as the snobby Charlie would have it, "a terribly vulgar place called Los Angeles," to recapture the missing masterpiece and return the Mortdecais to financial solvency. (Eye-popping whoosh-zoom graphics accompany the film's many location jumps.)
Scads of nutty, cartoonish action and wacky scenarios ensue as Mortdecai and company try to stay one step ahead of Emil Strago (Jonny Pasvolsky), a wild-haired revolutionary who wants the Goya to finance a worldwide uprising.
An L.A. billionaire (Jeff Goldblum) and his come-hither daughter (Olivia Munn) also factor into the whirling plot, which gets convoluted — even by farcical standards — by the time it reaches a climactic art auction.
Too much is made here of Mortdecai's eccentric twirl of a mustache, particularly how Johanna's distaste for it shuts her down romantically (though the gag reflex the odd facial hair inspires is pretty funny.) Like much else in this scattershot comedy, less might have been more. Fortunately, enough hits its mark — or at least comes close — to recommend "Mortdecai" as a rollicking, check-your-brains-at-the-door diversion.
MPAA rating: R for language, sexual material
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes
Playing: In general release