Johnny Depp in MortdecaiMORTDECAI

Mortdecai, a Clouseau-esque slapstick about a bumbling art dealer and a missing Goya, isn't so much a movie as it is a test, and one with a single question: Just how much Johnny Depp can you still stomach? For me, the answer turned out to be "more than I expected," because while director David Koepp's comedy is crummy in many ways, it did crack me up a good dozen times, and every time because its generally overexposed star did or said something that caught me completely, joyously off-guard.

That Depp is the best thing about the movie, however, is hardly surprising, considering he's practically all there is to the movie; even talents such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Ewan McGregor, Paul Bettany, and Jeff Goldbum are routinely, if politely, shoved out of the way to make room for more of the lead's mincing antics. Hell, the mystery plot itself is incidental to the mere sight of Depp's Charlie Mortdecai - a fey, frequently drunken British dandy and amateur sleuth with an eternally raised eyebrow and pathological attachment to his handlebar mustache. Eric Aronson's screenplay, adapted from a book series by the late Kyril Bonfiglioli, doesn't really make a lick of sense, though whether that's the fault of Aronson, Koepp's unfocused direction, or Bonfiglioli's predilection for jokes over narrative is open to debate. (It wasn't Aronson, after all, who chose to name Mortdecai's manservant "Jock Strapp.") Yet certainly all three, and producer/star Depp, too, can share blame for the dispiriting lack of comedic variety. If you don't find yourself responding to Depp's prissy elocution, exaggerated facial contortions, and naked determination to hog every second of his available screen time - or, for that matter, his groaner puns à la "Every man should have a Jock, don't you think?" - Mortdecai's 105 minutes will likely prove an awfully long sit.

Having said that, for my money, it certainly could've felt longer. Part of what made the experience so tolerable was our familiar movie-going ally Low Expectations, which came surgically attached to Koepp's outing as soon as we saw its cheap-looking, mostly unfunny trailers and noticed its January release date. But I feel no embarrassment in admitting that, on numerous occasions, I was actually shocked into laughter - even if the shock was primarily due to my not expecting to laugh at all. The film's R rating certainly helps, as the more dirty-minded routines sound particularly nasty, and amusing, coming from the mouths of Mortdecai and other "proper" English types. (Not knowing the film's rating when I entered the auditorium, I spent its first half thinking this was maybe the smuttiest PG-13 comedy I'd ever seen.) Yet while examples are infrequent, Aronson's script also boasts a bunch of witty put-downs that are hilarious for being so curtly literate; I especially relished Mortdecai's biting jab at an assailant: "Your mother and father only met once ... and money changed hands." And even though, nowadays, he's exhausting on-screen at least as frequently as he's inspired, Depp is fully, nearly sadistically in-character here, and his physical and verbal commitment - as in his recent small role in Kevin Smith's Tusk - has moments of riotous release. (Twenty years ago, who would've predicted that Johnny Depp would be our new Jim Carrey?) Mortdecai is weak. But thanks to its star, it's nowhere near as weak as it might've been, and I can easily imagine, some lazy-weekend afternoon, watching it again for Depp's mortified groping of Olivia Munn or his sympathetic retching at Paltrow's nausea, or his simultaneously incredulous and holier-than-thou reactions to basic American customs. "All I do is show up and I'm handed a credit card," Mortdecai marvels when given his key card at a Los Angeles hotel. "No wonder your country's in financial ruin."

 

Ryan Guzman and Jennifer Lopez in The Boy Next DoorTHE BOY NEXT DOOR

Halfway through director Rob Cohen's hysterically lurid and stupid thriller The Boy Next Door, Jennifer Lopez's teenage stalker confronts the object of his obsession and explains his psychotic behavior with "Haven't you ever made a mistake?!" Cinematically, at least since 1998's Out of Sight, that's pretty much all Lopez makes. But I was still flabbergasted that the enduring pop-culture icon chose this sub-sub-sub-basement Fatal Attraction for her first movie in two years, a ridiculous star vehicle in which Lopez's high-school teacher Claire enjoys a one-night-stand with her 19-year-old neighbor (Ryan Guzman) and spends the rest of the movie waiting for bunnies to boil on her stove.

They don't, thank heavens, and the film does deliver some juicy schadenfreude when Guzman - who resembles the preppie love child of James Franco and Jason Segel - violates Claire's classroom and calls Kristin Chenoweth's vice principal the mack daddy of dirty words. Yet beginning with the casting of J. Lo, whose signature lip gloss becomes a tad less shiny whenever she's aiming for depth, you know the film won't be anywhere near the steamy/trashy good time it needs to be to make up for its silliness. (Ensuring that her likability isn't remotely tarnished, the token, gauzy lovemaking interlude finds Guzman's hands discreetly covering Lopez's breasts. The kid's token, grainy blackmail picture, meanwhile, finds Lopez discreetly covering her own breasts.) And with this hot mess climaxing in a literal barn-burner scene, there's isn't a single element here that doesn't read as completely, laughably phony, from the obtuseness of Claire's husband (John Corbett) to the serial-killer wall in Guzman's basement to the birthday cake - white frosting, no colored icing, no candles - that Lopez serves at her son's birthday dinner. ("You made that?!" asks Corbett with beaming pride, yet not following it up with, "And you didn't freakin' decorate it?!") Considering that Cohen and his filmmaking team were clearly aiming for terrible, and they already had J. Lo, chanteuse Chenoweth, and the hunky hoofer from the last two Step Up sequels in their cast, why didn't they just go all out and make The Boy Next Door a musical? It still wouldn't have been as ludicrous as ...

 

Strange MagicSTRANGE MAGIC

In a recent interview in Wired magazine, executive producer George Lucas, who also conceived the film's story, said, "Just like Star Wars was designed for 12-year-old boys, Strange Magic was designed for 12-year-old girls." I hereby suggest that the world's 12-year-old girls consider a collective defamation-of-character lawsuit, because if I'm inferring correctly, what that demographic evidently wants in their cinematic entertainment is an unfathomable blend of Avatar, Frozen, and Glee set in a noxious fairyland kingdom somewhere in the Uncanny Valley. It's far too early in 2015 to declare director Gary Rydstrom's computer-animated-musical-comedy-fantasy-family-adventure (I'm really-totally-absolutely serious) the screen debacle of the year, if not one for the ages. But I was pretty sure that's what we were in for the moment Evan Rachel Wood's winged sprite entered and began singing Elvis Presley's "Can't Help Falling in Love" - a number that was soon followed by characters crooning Burt Bacharach's "I'll Never Fall in Love Again," Bob Marley's "Every Little Thing Is Gonna Be All Right," Kelly Clarkson's "Stronger," and many, many other favorites. (Wood's fairy, by the way, is named Marianne, giving her cheating beau a perfect excuse to sing the Four Seasons' "C'mon Marianne." With accompanying Riverdance choreography. Still really-totally-absolutely serious.)

Giving credit where it's kind of due, there is some enjoyment in wondering just what dementedly out-of-place ditty Lucas and his screenwriters will toss into their ghastly pop gumbo next. Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance with Somebody?" Leiber & Stoller's "Trouble"? Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance"? Yes, yes, and yes (though the latter, blessedly, is just heard as background filler). And with Lucas spending his gazillions on the rights to every song ever recorded, a few of the vocal actors perform them with pizzazz, particularly Alan Cumming as the initially odious Bog King and, in something of an inevitability, Kristin Chenoweth as an excitable Sugar Plum Fairy who has apparently never heard of The Nutcracker. Still, it's a loco idea confoundingly and ineptly executed, and ignoring the songs, you're stuck with chaotically meaningless storylines, incoherent shifts in time, and desperately creepy-looking CGI figures creating an unclassifiable experiment that no one, least of all 12-year-old girls, could conceivably want to endure. Strange Magic - and yes, you will be treated to ELO's title tune, right before the climactic take on "Wild Thing" and its groo-oo-vy kaleidoscopic effects - is the sort of travesty that would need to be seen to be believed if that didn't mean having to see the thing; this Lucasfilm endeavor is to animated musicals what Red, White, & Blaine is to Les Mis.

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