Pirates of the Caribbean for Dummies -- How One Director Can Sink a Pretty Good Movie Series
So if you’re interested in what a director does, or doesn’t do, go see Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. It’s a great film education watching Rob Marshall, the director replacing Gore Verbinski, wreck the Pirates franchise in one go. Because so many key elements are carried over from Verbinski’s insanely successful first three films—same star Johnny Depp, same writers Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio, same producer Jerry Bruckheimer, same cinematographer Dariusz Walski, same composer Hans Zimmer, same costume designer Penny Rose, and so on—you can more readily identify the factor that’s making this Pirates movie slow and boring and leaden and lifeless. Say a lot of things against Gore Verbinski’s Pirates movies if you like—a lot of people do, especially about the second and third ones—that they’re too loud and frenetic and confusing and cluttered and crazy and have everything thrown into them including the kitchen sink. But the point is, they’re not slow, boring, leaden, and lifeless.
It’s a marvel how Rob Marshall can’t direct action scenes, can’t convey what’s cool about wonderful locations, can’t get lively performances out of actors, can’t get any rhythm going in bantering dialogue, can’t figure out where to put the camera to give you a decent angle on anything, can’t…well, the list goes on and on. Who’s bright idea was it to hire the guy who directed Memoirs of a Geisha and Nine? Why is it certain people can fail horribly in Hollywood and go right on getting lucrative offers? Are they so much better at sucking up to producers and studio executives than the other suck-ups? Do they have exclusive access to unlimited amounts of the greatest cocaine in the world?
But we’ll save these questions for the long winter evenings. The gist of the thing is, this is a rotten movie. It isn’t 100% rotten, because there are things about the Pirates world that are beautiful on film, and it’s hard to mess them up: big ships sailing, and torches at night, and sword-fights, and interiors by lantern-light, and water in all its depth and shimmer and flow. Plus this new film has mermaids, and there are underwater CGI shots of mermaids swimming upward that are pretty sensational, and a great mermaid-attack scene when it turns out they have teeth like piranhas and a taste for sailor-flesh.
But otherwise, it’s shocking how pallid, muted, droopy, and dutiful everything has become.
Jack Sparrow is almost unrecognizable here, he’s been so regularized. He’s hardly a trickster character at all anymore, and that was his whole fascination, a welcome challenge to morons who believe that characters ought to “develop” in predictable “character arcs” that follow the logic of dreadful pop psychology and three-act screenplay structures. Here’s critic Mick LaSalle of The San Francisco Chronicle making the moron argument about Jack Sparrow:
“Captain Jack isn’t really a character. He is a condition. He can never have a strong emotion or a strong need. He can never change. Other characters must deal with him as a monolith, and if he ever were to alter or deepen, the audience would practically consider it a breach of contract.
So it’s a bit of a problem to find Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack at the center of ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.’ If you want to burden your movie from the outset, give it a protagonist who can’t grow, can’t change, can’t feel and wants nothing.”
This is a series of stupid claims about what makes a good character, too many to counter here. But I’ll take on one claim that’s simply, straightforwardly untrue: the Jack Sparrow character has plenty of emotions and needs. But the thing is, emotions and needs change all the time, as most of us know to our sorrow. The first three Pirates films dealt admirably with that torturing fact of life. In the first Pirates, Jack’s fixed need was his ship the Black Pearl, but his immediate needs in recovering the Pearl shifted constantly, and he shifted ground nimbly in accordance with them while less-nimble characters looked on in shock.
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:
“If you see the movie, watch Depp and Cruz in their scenes together and note the difference. Unlike Depp, Cruz listens. Her focus is complete. And she finds an emotional through line, amid the tangle of the story, to give wholeness to the woman she plays. Angelica (Cruz) wants to find the Fountain of Youth. She wants it not for herself, but for her father, Blackbeard the Pirate (Ian McShane), who is not a very nice person. So her motivation is love, with the complication that she might be in love with Captain Jack, as well. But her loyalty is to her father. That’s what Cruz plays – every moment she is onscreen.
Blackbeard’s loyalty is to himself. Single-minded and ruthless – something McShane can play as well as anybody – he wants the Fountain for the usual reason. He doesn’t want to die. So that’s what McShane plays.”
Yeah, what could be better than an actor who locates one completely obvious motivation in his or her character and plays it relentlessly for two hours, like a kid at a piano banging on the same note until you scream? But LaSalle’s blather does explain what makes Cruz and McShane so boring in their parts. Not their fault—McShane’s good, generally, and Cruz is good in Spanish movies, at least—no, this is Marshall’s work.
For another example of crippling obviousness, look at the sad mess of an opening action scene, which is being wrongheadedly praised in some quarters. Jack is the prisoner of King George II (Richard Griffin doing well as a corpulent pig-royal). He’s manacled to a gilt chair, facing the king, surrounded by guards, etc. We get close shots of Jack looking around the room, picking out the various objects he can throw and windows he can jump out of and so on, just to make it clear to the meanest intelligence that Jack Sparrow is planning his escape, and to insure that no one will be surprised by any detail of what happens one minute later.
This the kind of remedial Pirates of the Caribbean that many critics had requested. As Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly confesses,
“In the past I would have said — I have said, quite often — that I wish that the Pirates of the Caribbean movies would cut down on the ghoulishly hyperkinetic CGI and nonsensical plotting. Well, be careful what you wish for. On Stranger Tides has little in the way of jousting skeletons, acid-trip desert dream sequences, or over-the-top plot twists. And frankly, I don’t think I’ve ever longed more for excessive CGI and nonsense. Basically the entire film consists of Jack traveling aboard the run-down death ship of the â€¨ sinister pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane), all to reach the island that houses the legendary [Fountain of Youth]. Meanwhile, the peg-legged Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), working for King George, heads for the same destination. Directed by Rob Marshall (Chicago, Nine), who has taken over from Gore Verbinski, On Stranger Tides is so straightforward yet plodding that it puts the old back in old-fashioned entertainment.”
So all the fast and frantic qualities of the Verbinski Pirates are gone, killed by the slow set. Now we get the doddering version. Pirates of the Caribbean for Dummies. Everything explained. Long walks through the jungle during which nothing happens. Jack Sparrow is asked by Captain Barbosa what his escape plan is, and Jack Sparrow explains that does not have a plan, so he will improvise. Then he does so. And so the long evening wears on.