Friday, May 20, 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011, Rob Marshall)

I’m almost tempted not to bother writing a review for this, seeing as how the Pirates franchise has practically come to defined the expression “critic-proof.” Morever, it scarcely matters whether the audience likes these movies anymore, considering that the promise of Johnny Depp doing his Captain Jack thing puts asses in seats no matter how much the people attach to those asses complain about the movies after the fact. So let’s bring the discussion to Depp himself, whose creative well seems to be running dry, at least as far as the character is concerned. Oh sure, he does his usual thing, pulling faces, stumbling and slurring his way through the dialogue, but morphing into a man of action when backed into a corner. While his performance in the first (and best) Pirates was a subversive gem, practically de-pantsing the big-budget blockbuster that surrounded him, the sequels didn’t quite know what to do with him anymore. So big a hit was the first Pirates that the filmmakers became convinced that audiences legitimately cared about the adventures of Will and Elizabeth and the trade wars in which they had become ensnared, when in actuality they just wanted more Captain Jack. Unlike previous entries, On Stranger Tides makes Captain Jack the sole protagonist, and unfortunately Depp’s pirate shtick has become so well-worn that it’s no fun anymore.

It doesn’t help that, despite the presence of new director Marshall, Tides is just as bloated and enamored of eye candy as the last two Verbinski films. No longer is the Pirates team interested in making a silly, audience-pleasing swashbuckler- now they feel the need to churn out spectacles, separating opening-weekend crowds from $100 million or so of their money on opening weekend on their way to impressing shoppers with their eye-popping images on the latest HDTVs and Blu-Ray players on display at Best Buy. Because of this, Captain Jack more often than not feels out of place in his own movie. This wouldn’t be so damaging if the character still felt fresh- Depp’s a charismatic enough performer that when he brings his A game, he can win over the audience no matter how bad the movie. But because the movie as a whole is so second-rate, Depp is mostly a distraction, slowing down the action (which is mostly forgettable) so he can do his thing.

This isn’t to say that On Stranger Tides is without its pleasures. After all, Penelope Cruz looks mighty foxy in her pirate outfits. But the only performer who really conveys joy of performance is Geoffrey Rush, as the wizened old sea dog Barbossa. True, he hams it up just as much as Depp- even more, perhaps- but while Depp is mostly riffing by this point, Rush grounds his performance in the reality of this world, acting as slimy and gruff as the story will allow, and no more. He’s so good in this that I actually began to imagine a Pirates movie about Barbossa without Captain Jack getting in the way. Geoffrey Rush with a peg leg might not sell as many tickets as Johnny Depp in eyeliner, but the resulting movie would probably be a lot more fun.

Rating: 4 out of 10.

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