(This review of “Mortdecai” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 5 February 2015.)
Directed by David Koepp; Written by Eric Aronson; Starring Johnny Depp, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ewan McGregor, Olivia Munn, Paul Bettany, Jeff Goldblum and Jonny Pasvolsky
The new film “Mortdecai”, starring Johnny Depp as “Lord Charlie Mortdecai”, a shady British art dealer fighting off bankruptcy, follows a long tradition of the British comedy caper. Based on the humorous novel, “The Great Mortdecai Moustache Mystery” by Kyril Bonfiglioli, Mortdecai has a lot in common with P.G. Wodehouse’s foppish Bertie Wooster. Both are bumbling members of the British upper classes who romp through with witty dialogue, attended by loyal manservants (Wooster’s Jeeves and Mortdecai’s “Jock Strapp” – get the pun?).
“Mortdecai” races from one exotic location to another: from Hong Kong to London to Moscow to Los Angeles. In each one, Charlie manages to get himself into trouble and is invariably saved by the loyal Strapp (Paul Bettany). The production design is excellent (the “transitions” from one city to another are novel and funny) and the cast is strong. Aside from Depp, Gwyneth Paltrow stars as his wife Johanna; Ewan McGregor an old university friend, MI5 Inspector Marland, still in love with Johanna; Jonny Pasvolsky an international terrorist; and Jeff Goldblum a flamboyant American art entrepreneur.
“Mortdecai” falls into the category of a lightweight and enjoyable “guilty pleasure”, but where it falls down is in the script adaptation by first-time scriptwriter Eric Aronson. The dialogue is indeed witty, but the plot is overwritten, revolving around a stolen Goya painting that may or may not include the code to a Swiss bank account that contains Nazi riches. This reference to Nazi art theft is only a notional device that allows the characters to run around the world bumping into each other.
Much attention is paid to Mortdecai’s insistence on keeping his new moustache (the original book’s theme), to the disgust of Johanna, who refuses to sleep with him because of it. This must have seemed funny back in Wodehouse days, but in 2015 it is anachronistic and inconsequential. Another running joke is that servant Strapp continues to “take bullets” and other physical punishment for his master. There is a strong potential satire here about the attitudes of the British upper classes towards the lower classes, but this never properly develops.
Because we do not much care about Charlie Mortdecai’s problems, emotionally there is little at stake in the film. Underneath his roguish charm, Mortdecai seems a man out of his era, with a sensibility more suited for 1950.
Although the name Mortdecai could be mistaken for one of the stars of the “Purim” story, Lord Mortdecai is definitely not Jewish, although there are lots of Jewish connections to the film: (almost certainly) scriptwriter Eric Aronson along with actors Jeff Goldblum, Gwyneth Paltrow (Jewish father), and of course, Jonny (Jonathan Marc) Pasvolsky (see accompanying article), who plays the character of international terrorist Emil Strago. Pasvolsky is a South African-born Australian Jewish actor whose credits include one of the most Jewish Australian films, “Hey, Hey, It’s Esther Blueberger”. One minor character is even called Spinoza, although it’s not clear if this is a Jewish in-joke or not.
Jewish movie trivia:
This film is the big Hollywood break for Australian actor Jonny Pasvolsky, who appeared in the Australia Jewish film “Hey, Hey, It’s Esther Blueberger”. (See photo below of Pasvolsky in “Mortdecai”.)
IMDB reports that British actress Norma Attalah – who, as far as we can tell is not Jewish and acts the role of “Bronwen” in “Mortdecai” – played the Vishkower family maid in Barbra Streisand’s 1983 film “Yentl” (1983). Attalah was also Streisand’s “stand in” on the set, and memorised Yentl’s lines so that she could recite them while Streisand (as film director) was setting up shots. Recently Attalah also acted in a role in the British National Theatre’s production of the Nicholas Wright play “Travelling Light”, about the early Hollywood Jewish moguls.