starring Johnny Depp, Penélope Cruz, Ian McShane, Geoffrey Rush
screenplay by Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio, suggested by the novel On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers
directed by Rob Marshall
by Walter Chaw The mermaid effects in a nasty little sequence that falls around the midway point of Rob Marshall's disastrous, deadening Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (hereafter Pirates 4) are the only thing to recommend about this death march, and even those are almost too dark to make out. It's a situation aided by taking off the "real D" glasses, though not entirely ameliorated because Marshall's an assclown and this fourth instalment in the exhausted franchise is composed almost entirely of groups of people trudging and swooping aerial shots of pirate ships. It's the longest three days I've spent in a theatre this year. Of course, there's also Johnny Depp, content, it seems, to move into his movie dotage doing shtick for which the film stops and chuckles appreciatively at machine-calibrated intervals. It's comfortable stuff--boring stuff--so resigned to regurgitating its bird's dinner into the mouths of a nation of idiot babies that it rips off Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade instead of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Embarrassing? You bet. Not the least for its inevitable fate as one of the top-grossing films of the summer.
But for what? What will the masses have massed to genuflect before? There's Captain Jack Sparrow (Depp), doing his foppish, gay rock god as he Harold Lloyds his way out of an audience with the King and newly-minted (and freshly peg-legged) privateer Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) before reuniting with one-time flame Angelica (Ginger the Chicken Run chicken), who's in league with nefarious Blackbeard (Ian McShane) en route to the mystical Fountain of Youth. There's talk of prophecy, talk of voodoo, yak yak yak, blah blah blah; there's lots of badly-lit action that isn't exciting but rather antic (like a herd of three-year-olds in a pirate-themed bounce house); and because Marshall is who he is, there are two semi-musical interludes as well. I'd argue that the first Pirates of the Caribbean worked because it had a sense of the perverse and a real respect for genre--and that although I didn't like its two sequels at all, I'm now realizing that Gore Verbinski is a talented director because I didn't dislike them more.
Devotees of the series will note that there's less myth-making here in a plot that feels hermetically-sealed (and possible to pull off with any cast of characters), but they should also bemoan the attempt to make solipsistic Jack actually in love with poultry-esque Angelica. Enthusiasts should also bemoan the absence of not Keira Knightly and Orlando Bloom (the two planks of wood nailed together at the end of the last film), but Stellan Skarsgård and Bill Nighy, who provided the previous two entries with an anchor in real emotionality and depth. In place of them, find Ian McShane playing himself playing a pirate and Depp turning in another in a quietly-growing stream of selfish, grandstanding performances, tagged onto the second half of a career that began so idiosyncratically. You know you've outstayed your welcome when something like Jack Sparrow has become trimmed and neutered into an easily-digestible morsel--Little Edie as a nightclub warm-up once plucked from her Grey Garden. Tell the one about the raccoons in the attic, Jack.
Pirates 4 probably won't end up being the worst movie of the year (especially since it's not titled Transformers 3), but it deserves a chit in the fishbowl. Consider a lamentable subplot involving a Billy Budd missionary (Sam Clafin) who falls in love with a captive mermaid (Astrid Berges-Frisbey, who could use a sandwich) he dubs, for some unknown if undoubtedly sappy reason, "Syrena." Consider how Marshall spends altogether too much time on the budding relationship of these non-characters and how at its semi-resolution, Syrena does something completely inexplicable, then something else completely inexplicable, leading to ambiguity not of the provocative kind but of the rudderless kind indulged in by people making it up as they go along, forgetting what they've left in and what they've left at the side of this endless slog. Pirates 4 doesn't have a thought in its head. It has no intention beyond filthy lucre, no artistry learned outside the school of louder/muddier. It's obnoxious and enervating, a Chipmunks record played at half-speed. And if the moment a pack of evil, English-speaking Spaniards shows up for the first of multiple anti-climaxes doesn't put you off for good, the final Casablanca speech shared by Jack and erstwhile lackey Gibbs (Kevin McNally), about how Jack is a fucking legend, will. Originally published: May 20, 2011.