Mortdecai is creeping into theaters with the flushed shame of a debutante who expects to be pelted with tomatoes. It's a pity. In 1965, Mortdecai would be the hit of the year. Director David Koepp whips through this pop-colored caper about crooked art dealer Charlie Mortdecai (Johnny Depp) -- one of those posh British frauds with a large estate and no money in the bank — as though if the dialogue speeds fast enough, the entire film can DeLorean back five decades to where it belongs.
But there's no room at the modern multiplex for an homage to kooky classic comedy unless we're snickering at the very idea, as in the Austin Powers films. Koepp is sincere. He has great affection for this world of overstuffed libraries and leather chairs, and the first ten minutes are devoted to Mortdecai's newly grown mustache. He preens it with a tiny comb, smoothing the curls from his nose to the corners of his gummy grin. It's a rich caramel that matches his gelled hair, his brown suit, and the corgi he shares with wife Johanna (Gwyneth Paltrow). She can't stand the thing. Every time she kisses him, she gags, causing Mortdecai to panic that Johanna will leave him for MI5 agent Martland (Ewan McGregor), who's pressuring the couple to find a missing Goya that may lead to a Swiss bank stash of Nazi gold.
Depp's shtick is ideal for the part -- it's just so similar to his bad roles that we can't tell he's doing good work. Meanwhile, the rest of the cast acts at a less obnoxious pitch, allowing Paltrow and McGregor to prove themselves surprisingly deft comedians.