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Pirates of the Caribbean for Dummies -- How One Director Can Sink a Pretty Good Movie Series

It's a great film education watching Rob Marshall, the director replacing Gore Verbinski, wreck the Pirates franchise in one go.

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In Pirates 2, everyone’s needs and desires come unmoored, the other characters get pirate-ized and all start acting like Jack, and Jack starts acting like Jack-cubed, incessantly shifting and changing, unable to fix on what they want for more than a day at a time. That’s why so many people called the sequel an incoherent mess, though it’s not. It makes total sense. The movie’s explicitly about not knowing what you want and all the chaos that results, which is why it had the whole plot-line about the compass that doesn’t point north, it points to what you want most. Only suddenly “it isn’t working,” it’s swiveling around without not pointing at anything, it’s pointing at confusing things you’re not supposed to want but maybe you do, etc.

In Pirates 3, Jack himself is fragmenting, fighting with himself, determined only on not-dying after his appalling afterlife experience in Davy Jones’ Locker. But death is crowding everybody; even the undead Davy Jones and crew aren’t safe from a more final extinction. All our characters are driven into piracy because piracy has been redefined as anyone not slaving for the East India Tea Company–a great synecdoche for what’s happening to us right now in what we laughingly call “real life,” by the way. And pirates are being driven “off the map,” so the characters are all fighting and clawing at each other trying to survive. Only in the final extremity, when imminent, ultimate death “focuses the mind” like Samuel Johnson said it would, does each main character recovers his or her primary desire and destiny.

A great wildness the first three Pirates had, a raging inventiveness, not the usual three-act plod at all. In that they were inheritors of the great genre films, the ones that get heated and crazy and risk incoherence—slapstick comedy, film noir, Hong Kong martial arts films. Now that Gore Verbinski’s also directed Rango, we’re confirmed in knowing he’s got the right stuff, and look forward with interest to his upcoming Tonto-dominated Lone Ranger movie.

Pirates 4 seemed headed toward something potentially wild, by taking on Jack Sparrow’s dangerous feelings for a woman, Angelica (Penelope Cruz). He might actually be able to love her because she’s his exact counterpoint, so exact that when he kisses her, he’s kissing himself—“Something I’ve always wanted to do,” he says. Promising idea. But like many promising ideas, they’re Marshallized and come to nothing.

Just to give you an idea of Marshall’s capacity for ruining everything, the zombie pirates in this film are boring. Zombie pirates!

Several things in the script might have been alchemized into gold, but stay lead in Marshall’s hands. For example, the early bit about down-and-out Jack Sparrow in London, shadowed by the rumors of another, prosperous Jack Sparrow in London who’s buying a ship and hiring a crew. He confronts this other Jack, declaring, “You stole me, I’m here to recover meself,” and squares off against what seems to be, in dim light, his own doppelganger. But Jesus, the shot choices! Vague long shots, a short uninspired sword-fight played out in conveniently-disguising shadow, then—running out of any ideas at all—the quick reveal of who’s pretending to be Jack. It’s like Any Film Student USA was asked to step in and try his best. All the humor and uncanniness that were possible remain that—possible—but never to be realized, because Rob Marshall doesn’t know where to put the damn camera.

It’s that way with everything. A tired literal-mindedness pervades the whole movie, an earnest endeavor to make sure the not-bright audience is keeping up with the not-much that’s happening. Again, Mick LaSalle, going for some sort of cretin prize in film reviewing, gets everything wrong by praising this very quality:

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