A review requested by Grace C, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

Bad comedies, as I've had cause to mention before, are the very worst, because you can laugh at bad action or melodrama or horror. But the definition of a bad comedy is that it's not funny, so there's nothing to do but sit there and seethe. Even here, though, there are gradations. A comedy that is merely poor in all respects is merely dull, but it isn't truly hateful - for hatefulness, we must switch over to those movies which are going so clearly wrong that you can tell the actors are as annoyed by it as we are in the audience. It is their literal job to pretend to feel things that they don't honestly feel; when they can't even be bothered, it sharpens how truly poor the film is and adds a layer of contempt for the audience in the bargain, since the lack of respect the filmmakers at that point feel for us becomes truly unmistakable.

We still haven't hit the peak of hatefulness, though. For that, we have to dig all the way down deep to the rarest kind of awful comedy, where even the characters themselves tangibly hate the movie they're in. They have literally been written to telegraph how god-damnably enervating the comedy surrounding them is. And here, all the way at the Ninth Circle of Comedy Hell, is where we find Mortdecai, the most famous release of 2015 that absolutely nobody whatsoever saw. If you were blessed enough to be asleep all through January of that year and missed the improbably ubiquitous ad campaign, Mortdecai is about a man with a mustache, though having now seen the picture, I can say that describing it with that logline is considerably underselling the film's interest in the mustache, and considerably overselling the depth of character of the man. The man, Charlie Mortdecai, is played by Johnny Depp, in what is anyway not the least-invested performance he's given in recent years (hey Transcendence, how's it hanging?); the mustache I assume to have been devised either by Peta Dunstall, credited as Depp's hair stylist, or Khanh Trance, in charge of "hair special effects". And oh my, the mustache surely is that.

If you think I am over-emphasising the mustache, I will gladly place my hand upon every holy text that has ever been written, one at a time, and assure you: I am not. The mustache is the driving force in Mortdecai: all other things are a distant second that it hasn't quite worked out yet. And if this sounds mildly dreadful, I haven't even gotten to the worst part, which is that every single character in the film hates Charlie Mortdecai's mustache just as much as I'm trying to force you to. One major character in the film is his wife, Johanna (Gwyneth Paltrow); she has been rebuffing his sexual advances of late and is visibly starting to tire of the marriage. Both Mortdecais are well aware that this is entirely a function of how repulsive she finds his mustache. One of the film's signature scenes - so much so that it's repeated, and given prominence of place right as the very last narrative beat of Eric Aronson's screenplay - is that Johanna is willing to muscle through it and try to kiss her husband, but the mustache turns her stomach and she starts hacking. Mortdecai, with an uncontrollably sympathetic gag reflex, starts hacking too. And so they sit there, dry-heaving at each other, and this seemed like a decent approximation of "film comedy" to enough people that it made it all the way through production and post-production without one single soul piping up to say, "let's try it without the gagging joke...?"

It is possibly not the case that every character in Mortdecai has an immediate, instinctual revulsion to Mortdecai's mustache, but at least all of the ones play by recognisable actors do. The same scene plays out many times more than it can ever be justified: someone looks at Mortdecai's face with a look of unfettered hatred and hurls out some loathsome thing to compare his mustache to, like they hate him, and they hate themselves even more for having been born to the species that gave him life. "That is terrible and awful and not in any way amusing or funny", each character lines up to say, with the inescapable second half of the equation being, "and yet it's the main joke of this godforsaken movie I have been made to populate". If the mustache was actually funny, maybe this would sell. It's not, so it doesn't.

Anyway, Mortdecai is some kind of caper film: a priceless Goya, long thought lost, has surfaced, and Inspector Alistair Martland (Ewan MacGregor) has gotten in touch with his old university rival Mortdecai to hunt it down. Mortdecai, you see, is a swindler, con-man, and fraudster in the international art world; he's also married to the only woman Martland has ever loved. Globe-trotting ensues, in a vague and non-committal attempt to parody, or homage, or in some manner reference the existence of '60s movies like Topkapi and How to Steal a Million (it is, however, seemingly set in the present). This fits in nicely with Depp's extremely apparent but totally ineffectual and surface-level attempt to play Mortdecai as a reincarnated version of Terry-Thomas, British comedian and mainstay of ludicrously over-big '60s comedies. As the Mustachioed Man of Mystery jets across the world, some of the lost souls who get dragged along in his wake include Ulrich Thomsen, Olivia Munn, Paul Bettany (more than "dragged along"; as Mortdecai's bodyguard, he has what's effectively the second-biggest role in the film), and Jeff Goldblum, the last of whom is uniquely able to survive the experience largely by acting like the protagonist of some totally different script (I am promised all sorts of ways that Kyril Bonfiglioli's novel Don't Point That Thing at Me, from which this is loosely derived, is a delight).

It's a grinding slog, and the comedy could not conceivably be any broader - as a '60s homage, it has its eye on the very worst, most shrill and messy British comedies of that decade - and there was no chance in hell of saving it, though director David Koepp tries, kind of. I don't know why he tries (nor how he got attached to the first feature in his brief directorial career for which he has no credited role as screenwriter), and I wonder if his attempt made things worse. There's some kind of effort made to inject a layer of cartoon action energy to the comedy, which makes the first few scene transitions work: they're big swoops across the world with major cities marked out in giant floating letters. There's a mania at work here that's hardly good in any way, but at least it has zip and vigor. Sadly, those giant floating letters prove to be the only real stylistic idea Koepp or anyone else ever comes up with, and so we see them all the time, whenever the action shifts scenes. In case the sixth time an establishing shot of the London Eye and Big Ben shows up, you're still not one-hundred percent sure of where we are in the world.

Anyway, I mentioned Topkapi. If you ever get the urge to watch Mortdecai, I promise that your time will be better spent watching Topkapi instead. If need be, pretend that Robert Morley is Johnny Depp. "Golly, Depp sure looked old when they shot this," you can say, "what a chameleon!" Better for you, better for Topkapi, and probably better for Johnny Depp.