At Wit's End
Slightly Better Than Polanski's Pirates!
I mean, as pirate movies go, the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie is actually pretty good. Compared to Roman Polanski's moribund Pirates, or the Renny Harlin/Geena Davis fiasco Cutthroat Island, or even the Christopher Atkins/Kristy McNichol vehicle The Pirate Movie, Gore Verbinski's cinematic extrapolation of the fifth-best Disneyland ride is goddamn Ran. But compared to good movies, even dumb good movies, it's a pretty paltry exercise in franchise prolongment. (It'd be ridiculous to have a problem with a movie like this being dumb, because dumb is part of the point. But even as dumb movies go, At World's End is super, extra, double dumb. And long. Jesus, it's long. So long that I saw it last Monday afternoon and the credits are still rolling. Bring a sleeping bag.)
According to the script, Davy Jones has to spend 10 years ferrying dead souls to "the world beyond this world" for every one day he spends on land with his girlfriend, the goddess Calypso—who also sentenced him to that crappy job in the first place, but best not to examine this relationship too closely; it's a house of cards. The same basic ratio applies to the film itself: For every one fun stunt, or good Johnny Depp one-liner, or funny sight gag involving a monkey and a parrot, you get 10 years of confusing exposition or misplaced thematic hauteur or plodding melodrama or embarrassing heartstring grabs. Because it is the spawn of a surprise hit, the movie wants to be too many things, and doesn't understand what it's good at. Take the characters of Davy Jones and Bootstrap. Both are triumphs of CGI and makeup design, with human-mollusk-crustacean elements combining to make the kind of innovative fantasy hybrids that Disney used to be known for. Great. But perhaps because the characters are played by two fantastic actors (Bill Nighy and Stellan Skarsgård), director Verbinski plays the Gollum card and tries to invest these utterly ludicrous creatures—whose stories are (let's not forget) incredibly dumb contrivances meant to sustain not one but three movies based (let's also not forget) on a fucking amusement-park ride—with human pathos. Big mistake. You just feel glad for Nighy that his gaunt face is obscured under all that digital octopus mess. Skarsgård isn't quite so lucky.
The rest of the cast fares little better. Orlando Bloom wins another award for managing to play a romantic hero without ever once revealing an eyelash of charisma. At least in Lord of the Rings he had a terrible wig to blame. Here he's supposed to be a proper heartthrob, and he looks like the lifeguard at Humorless Beach. Keira Knightley, so spry and sharp in the first Pirates movie (and most everything else she's in), unfortunately lets her collagen-pumped upper lip and spray-on tan do all the heavy lifting here. She spends the whole film looking like she just got punched in the mouth. Meanwhile, nothing can stop Geoffrey Rush from sucking the marrow out of every shot he comes near, a welcome change from the muted performances of everyone else onscreen.
Except, of course, for Johnny Depp. It's 45 minutes before Jack Sparrow turns up, and worth the wait. His entrance is funny and inventive, a great showcase for Depp's physical grace and verbal wit. Even as he crowds middle age, it's still clear: He remains the most beautiful man in movies by some distance. But the magic of his performance in the first film is gone. The great surprise of the campy, show-stealing, Gene Hackman–in–Superman turn has been assimilated. Pirates of the Caribbean allowed Depp to be not only better than the big, dumb movie he was in (a specialty of his for 20 years), but so much better that it was like he was in his own movie inside the big, dumb movie. Well, two massive sequels and an Oscar nomination later, Depp is no longer the secret weapon of the franchise. He's the show. So he doesn't get to be in his own movie anymore. He's 100 percent onboard the big, dumb movie just like everyone else. He's still Johnny Depp, of course, and Sparrow is still a fine comic creation—though the execution feels a tiny bit aaarrrrtless. It's a drag, but not a tragedy, because part one was never actually great. It was just a good ride.
And it's time to get off.