Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Pirates of the Caribbean 4: On Stranger Tides (Two Years Later)

--“You haven’t changed.” 
--“Implying the need.”

I have a complicated relationship with Capt. Jack Sparrow. I loved Johnny Depp’s performance as the slurring, mincing, eyeshadow-inundated pirate in 2003’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl” so much I named it the performance of the decade. I meant it. I stand by it. I put that performance side-by-side with George C. Scott in “Dr. Strangelove” and Kevin Kline in "A Fish Called Wanda" and Peter Sellers in the original “Pink Panther” and Buster Keaton in “Steamboat Bill Jr.”, film scholars be damned. It’s that good, so committed to appearing so extemporaneous, the only performance I can recall that manages to steal the totality of a $140 million production right out from under its elephantine production and special effects.

On the other hand, I was so repulsed by the third entry in the series, “At World’s End”, after being just generally annoyed with the second entry, that I walked out on it. No, really. I did. Got up and walked right out of the theater.


What has always troubled me is the possibility that the second and third (and fourth) films would taint his astonishing achievement in the first. With each successive cash grab and with each subsequent attempt to go bigger and the deeper in overtaxed movies, he becomes more buried and the further from his brilliance we get and the more distant it becomes. Thus, in the face of “The Lone Ranger”, featuring a much dissected performance by Depp as the infamous Tonto, and 10 years (to the month) since the Capt. Jack Sparrow Winds that brought so much relief and liveliness, I chose to take the plunge I consciously neglected two years ago. That is, I watched the fourth entry in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series, “On Stranger Tides.”

And when I say watched, what I mean is that I DVR’d it off ABC Family and viewed it in increments – here and there over dinner or lunch, when I had 10 minutes to kill waiting for a friend, etc. It was (almost) exactly what I expected, which, as those who have been with Cinema Romantico since the beginning know full well, I do not mean in any way as a compliment.

One, the film is endless. Truly the last three films in this series (and even the first one in some respects) represent the frustrating sensation of a family vacation at its tail-end, when the sight-seeing is done and the station wagon is on the last stretch of road and all you want to do is be home but home seems so…far…away. Even watching it in increments it feels endless! “God, that six minutes went by like four hours.”

Second, the film is incoherent. This is not to say the plot – involving a search for the mystical Fountain of Youth – is necessarily incoherent – though it does, as it must, reach overkill with chalices and mermaids and yada yada – but that it comes across as if possessing a disdain for pacing, skipping from action scene to action scene so relentlessly and carelessly it loses its grip (which, of course, is why it feels endless).

Third, the film is uninventive. As established, it involves the Fountain of Youth, Ponce de Leon’s supposed “baby”, as mystical a fable as this old Blue Planet has ever conjured, and upon arrival all we receive is the movie's umpteenth sword fight and a crib from the end of "Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade." I suspect the irony of the Fountain of Youth and the film’s tired employment of it was entirely lost on its makers. Alas.

Fourth, Penelope Cruz, portraying the perfectly named Angelica, the is-she, isn’t-she daughter of the legendarily frightful Blackbeard (Ian McShane, solid), is wasted. And a pity too because I suspect another movie may have been lurking in the edges, based around Angelica and the woozy Capt. Jack.


In the first three films Depp never really had (all due respect to Keira Knightley, whom I like very much) a proper contessa with whom he could playfully spar. The de Havlliand to his Flynn, if you will. There is a splendid moment on an isolated beach when Depp and Cruz verbally have at it, she telling lies and he believing them, if only for a second, before thinking better of it, even though we can tell he doesn’t really want to. The fatal issue? This moment happens about four minutes before the movie ends. T’is a pity, for if so much story had not needed advancing by keeping them apart, perhaps they could have spent more time together. And so it seems we only get further and further away from Depp’s original genius. But do we?

Very early, after the prologue I have completely forgotten, Capt. Jack Sparrow is shackled to an ornate chair for a council with King George. But Capt. Jack Sparrow, as we know, prefers talking with his hands, wild, effeminate gestures, and this task becomes nigh impossible when handcuffed to arm rests. Yet, try he must, and so the clinking and clanging of the irons accompanies his every word in the misbegotten attempts to pantomime. It is funny. It is really funny, and it harkens back to what makes the original performance so special.

It's still there, by God, in each movie, right under our noses, we just have to look for it. If only the makers of these monstrosities had bothered to try.

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