Johnny Depp takes the title role in "Mortdecai," a caper comedy about an art dealer and part-time sleuth improbably named Lord Charlie Mortdecai. He's an effeminate dandy with an absurd handlebar mustache and a plummy British accent who's known worldwide as a blustering dimwit and chronic bumbler. Somehow, though, he always manages to get results.
But not, in this case, laughs.
This oddball character, created by novelist Kyril Bonfiglioli in the 1970s, is clearly meant to join Depp's pantheon of outsize roles, from the drunken Jack Sparrow in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" series to the goth-rock Comanche Tonto in "The Lone Ranger." Instead, Depp's grating, bug-eyed performance in this strenuously unfunny film may go down as a kind of psychotic break in his overacting career.
Both Depp and the entire film are haunted by the ghost of Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau in the "Pink Panther" films. The Kato role goes to Paul Bettany as Jock, a thuggish manservant who bails his master out of numerous scrapes. Ewan McGregor plays Alistair Martland, a strait-laced MI5 agent who reluctantly asks Mortdecai's help solving a murder that involves a missing Goya. A glimmer of recognizable humanity comes from Gwyneth Paltrow as Mortdecai's stern but loving wife, Johanna.
Directed by David Koepp (the screenwriter behind "Jurassic Park" and "Spider-Man") from a script by first-timer Eric Aronson, "Mortdecai" feels anachronistic on several levels: Its hero is a holdover from a bygone England (he calls America "the Colonies") while its overall tone is a throwback to 1970s action comedies like "Foul Play" and "Silver Streak." (Olivia Munn plays the quaintly sexist role of a young nymphomaniac.) The chase scenes are as creaky as the humor.
But the bulk of the blame goes to Depp, who strains so hard for laughs that he almost seems to do himself damage. Mortdecai's tics and grimaces are all outward projections, but inside he has no heart, no soul. The reason we don't laugh at this character is because we don't really know or understand him. "Mortdecai" is a high-dive into a swimming pool of wackiness that turns out to be empty.