May 21, 2011

Pirates Of The Caribbean 4: On Stranger Tides (05/21/2011)

Lettergrade: F

For months, Harold Camping of Family Radio has been saying that Judgement Day would begin on May 21st, 2011. The Rapture: The day on which the second coming of Jesus would occur and all true Christians would be removed from the earth, leaving non-believers to suffer in a burnt out, hellish wasteland before Armageddon (and the end of the world) would arrive in October.

Well, May 21st is here, and as far as I'm aware the Jesus part hasn't happened, but my wife and I went to see Pirates Of The Caribbean 4: On Stranger Tides this afternoon, which runs about 2 hours and 20 minutes and, by odd coincidence, feels like about five months of agonizing, post-apocalyptic suffering.

Let's get right to it: The movie is a cynical, heartless cash-grab for Johnny Depp, producer Jerry Bruckheimer, the screenwriters, and the studio. It is free of any wit, or well-staged sequences, or memorable performances, or any of the other components that made the other films pleasurable. The pace is turgid, and the rambling dialogue is bloated and maddeningly aimless. It is easily the most "talky" entry that the series has had with the least amount of payoff: Scenarios are more or less recycled from the first film (a sword fight in the rafters during the early part of the movie, a race to the story's supernatural MacGuffin throughout the middle, and a big fight in a cave toward the end), and from the first and third Indiana Jones movies. The bullshit story is just as convoluted and as cumbersome as the other three movies, only much less engaging and interesting (to me). I caught myself enjoying exactly one scene: the mermaids' attempt to seduce the men on the lifeboats midway through the flick.

To top it all off, since Keira Knightly, Orlando Jones and the remainder of the supporting cast from the earlier films are all absent, we're left with a new line-up of bland and unmemorable side players who don't leave much of an impression or even really distinguish themselves as enjoyable pirate stereotypes. It was strange seeing Jack front and center in the story as well: He's really kind of the Han Solo of the series... a scene stealing supporting character who was never before required to give the film it's heart. Having him run the show, as he does here, just doesn't feel right. I thought Knightly and Jones were a little uninteresting in the original trilogy, to be honest, but the young romantic couple that subs in for them in this one barely even has a pulse. The "male" half of that romance is played by the terminally dull Sam Claflin, a cleric brought aboard Blackbeard's ship by Cruz in order to save whatever's left of her (maybe) father's soul. Endless preaching about redemption and salvation in a supposedly fun summer popcorn movie?

Roger Ebert sometimes writes that a James Bond film is only as good as its villain. There might be something to that: I think I preferred Pirates 2 and 3 to the first largely because Davy Jones was such a beautifully rendered baddie, owing equal credit to Bill Nighy's scenery-gnawing on-set motion-capture performance as well as to ILM's stellar work in making him look so damn cool. This time it's Ian McShane as the voodoo pirate Captain Blackbeard who oddly contributes to several of the brighter moments in the movie while simultaneously encapsulating what is most disappointing about it.

You see, it has been foretold that Blackbeard will die in the not-too-distant future, and so his daughter Angelica (Penelope Cruz) is desperate to locate the fabled Fountain Of Youth in order to save him. As it so happens, Jack Sparrow mumbled something about wanting to find the Fountain Of Youth at the end of part 3, so he's in the mix this time too. Cruz and Captain Jack have a history, of course, and theirs is a relationship built upon double-dealing and mistrust, as most of Sparrow's are. Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush) is back for some reason as well, now as a British officer who is seeking Blackbeard for his own reasons. Lots of interpersonal melodrama in this one, but it's so tough to really feel invested in any of it.

To be honest with you, one of more disconcerting aspects of the movie is that director Rob Marshall (replacing Gore Verbinski, who made the other three) either doesn't quite get the subversive, rock-star tone of the earlier movies, or he has no interest in making a picture that exists on similar terms. Nowhere is this more clear than in his handling of Jack Sparrow himself. In the other entries, Jack was always devious and almost chicken hearted, talking his way out of tight spots, and sort of bumbling his way through the adventure, in spite of his cowardice. In this one, he's a little more like an action hero, pulling off impressive feats and occasionally even acts of heroism in a way that just frankly doesn't feel consistent with the guy we've come to know in the previous movies.

But really, it doesn't sit well with me that Depp agreed to play the character a fourth time at all. I don't blame him for appearing in the first picture, a role which turned out to be his signature performance, nor do I begrudge him for accepting the mountain of cash that Disney offered him to do the back-to-back sequels. You can't fault the guy for wanting to play pirate in exotic locations for a few months and collect huge checks along the way, but now that he's been playing the same guy for eight years (with occasional breaks to phone-in increasingly lazy performances in progressively soul-dead Tim Burton movies), you really start to miss Johnny Depp the gifted actor, and cannot help but wonder what kind of work the guy who appeared in Donnie Brasco, Blow and Finding Neverland would be doing if he were still interested in showing up to work.

"Money doesn't buy you happiness," he has been quoted, "but it buys you a big enough yacht to sail right up to it!" True dat, Mr. Depp, but a large salary and massive big box office receipts do not change the fact that Pirates Of The Caribbean 4 is fucking terrible. Such details probably don't matter to him, of course, since he couldn't even get together the time to watch parts 2 and 3 once they were finished, but is it too much to ask that he at least pretend to give a shit about the movies that he's earning all that cash from in the first place?

My journal entry on Pirates Of The Caribbean 3: At World's End.

My journal entry on Alice In Wonderland.

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