Rather disappointingly, Mortdecai isn't the flaming catastrophe that its dreadful trailer seems to promise. Still, it's a mess, a failed comedy that's both frantic and leaden, and largely laughless. As a vehicle for Johnny Depp, coming off five years of duds like The Tourist, The Rum Diary, Dark Shadows, and The Lone Ranger, it's another dire misstep along the path of facile muggery and simpering self-regard.
The movie is based on a '70s cult novel by the late English writer Kyril Bonfiglioli, whose specialty was an updated take on the fusty brilliance of P.G. Wodehouse. Bonfiglioli's protagonist, Charlie Mortdecai (Depp's role here) is a dissolute British aristocrat whose fortune is running out. He's down to his last country estate and vintage Rolls, his marriage to the svelte Johanna (Gwyneth Paltrow) is collapsing, and he's compelled to take part in shady art dealings to make ends meet. When a priceless Goya goes missing, an MI5 officer named Alistair Martland (Ewan McGregor) calls him in to track it down. Accompanied by his faithful manservant—whose name, I'm afraid, is Jock Strapp (Paul Bettany)—Mortdecai soon finds himself pinballing from Oxford to Moscow to palmy Los Angeles in the revolving company of an art-smuggling auto mechanic (Paul Whitehouse), a demented revolutionary (Jonny Pasvolsky), and a wily nymphomaniac (Olivia Munn) and her billionaire father (Jeff Goldblum). There are also some mad Russians, a jowly toff described as "the rudest man in England," and a long-dormant Swiss bank account established by the Nazi art thief Hermann Göring.
The tone being striven for here is antic farce—something along the lines of mid-period Blake Edwards, possibly. Director David Koepp has failed to achieve it, though. Koepp, who wrote the unfortunate Indiana Jones fiasco Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, opens this movie with a scene involving Chinese mobsters in a Hong Kong nightclub that's lifted for no particular reason from the Shanghai opening of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. He then spends the rest of the film trying to maintain our interest in the story's endless idiocy, which involves, among many other things, incessant banter about Mortdecai's silly mustache, which might have been ripped straight off the lip of Hercule Poirot. There's also dialogue that would defeat the most determined performer. Mortdecai observes that "kissing a man without a mustache is like eating an egg without salt." Reminded of his enormous back-tax bill, he says, "I had no idea I was so deep in Her Majesty's hole." When he turns up smashed in one scene, Martland hisses, "You're as drunk as a fiddler's bitch."
The movie has a swank production design, and some of the actors, especially Bettany, manage to rise to the low occasion. But Depp—one of the film's producers—is a sad sight, negotiating the movie's witless hubbub with a veddy-veddy English accent and a repertoire of inane facial tics that borders on vaudevillian. Unfortunately, this sort of self-indulgent miscalculation is nothing new in his latter-day career. But the man is such an inherently likable performer that we still hope he'll come to his senses, preferably soon. His vast reservoir of audience goodwill might be nearing depletion.
Kevin Macdonald's Black Sea is overloaded with narrative cargo. There's a sunken treasure (Nazi gold, the best kind), a cramped submarine in search of it (lots of squinty tension and infernal lighting), and an ornery crew (half Brits, half Russians, all at each other's throats). But there's also a tearful love story—sketched in gauzy flashbacks—and some awkwardly overlaid working-class economic resentments that might have been airlifted in from another kind of picture. These elements don't mesh as smoothly as you might hope, but the movie does offer some familiar claustrophobic pleasures, along with unexpected echoes of films like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and even Aliens (there's a scheming corporate weasel onboard). The movie's often fun, but mostly just kinda.
Jude Law is convincingly crusty as a submarine pilot named Robinson, who has spent most of his life working in marine salvage. When the company by which he's employed abruptly lays him off, he curses the fat cats who run the world and have ruined the economy, and pines for his ex-wife, who left him to marry—what else?—some rich guy. Huddling in a pub with other jobless seamen, Robinson hears tell of a Nazi submarine that went down in the Black Sea back in the 1940s, bearing a payload of Reichsmarks now worth many millions of dollars. A wealthy American agrees to finance an expedition to retrieve this treasure from under the Russian fleet patrolling above it; in return, this mysterious moneyman wants a big slice of the action, and insists on sending along his landlubbing assistant, Daniels (Scoot McNairy). Robinson and his Russian pal Blackie (Konstantin Khabensky) assemble a crew, refurbish a rust-bucket sub, and are soon underway.
Macdonald, who also directed The Last King of Scotland and the newshound thriller State of Play, effectively cranks up suspense as the crew members, divided by linguistic comprehension, start butting heads, and the usual mechanical disasters proliferate. He also renders the digital depths through which the submarine passes with evocative eeriness, and in one long underwater sequence delivers some top-drawer thrills.
Unfortunately, while Ben Mendelsohn is a memorable wacko, there are too many other shipmates onboard to command full individual attention (and the most appealing of them disappears early on). The occasional spasms of violence are also problematic, motivated by nothing more than screenwriter Dennis Kelly's insistence that they transpire. And we can't help wondering, throughout, exactly how Robinson would expect to shift a large pile of gold bars off his ship without anyone casting covetous eyes upon them.
This is nitpicking, of course. No one expects a genre movie to completely add up. But Black Sea would have benefited from a tighter script. Even the twisty ending doesn't really pull the movie together.