July 7, 2006 | Comments ()

By Phillip Stephens | Film | July 7, 2006 |


It still boggles my mind a little to look back on how absurdly successful the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie was. I find it testimony to the sorry state of blockbusters today that throngs of charm-deprived people left the theater declaring its genius. What the film was was your run-of-the-mill Bruckheimer adventure-schlock anchored around Johnny Depp’s bizarrely mincing pirate. And mince he did. Making the wise decision to treat the material as farce, Depp channeled a drug-addled, sexually ambiguous Keith Richards, and every ridiculous ounce of it came across on screen. Aided by a similarly charismatic Geoffrey Rush and director Gore Verbinski’s willingness to let the silliness ensue as it should, the film garnered a damn fortune and an Oscar nod for Depp (!?).

Wouldn’t you know it, Bruckheimer and his army of sycophantic thralls couldn’t let well enough alone, couldn’t just be happy that they hit a charming and popular nerve (in all likelihood by accident), but — bolstered by this success — they decided to grab their cash-cow by the teats and squeeze them until purple and bruised. In the vein of The Matrix, two sequels were fired into production, filmed back to back and in two-parter fashion. Would that Pirates of the Caribbean had anywhere to go that was worth the effort. …

Dead Man’s Chest is the first of these sequels, picking up a short time after the events of the first PotC. Captain Jack Sparrow (Depp) is still swaggering and getting into mischief, but poor Elizabeth (Keira Knightly) and Will (Orlando Bloom) are accosted on the eve of their nuptials for aiding and abetting his escape. Will is sent to find Jack and retrieve his special compass in exchange for Elizabeth’s release. Jack, meanwhile, has to deal with the problem of another damned curse, this time around from the legendary Davy Jones, which also requires that he go looking for some trinket or other. Everybody’s sent on retrieval errands, then sent on other people’s retrieval errands — that’s the story.

Which, fine, whatever, but here Verbinski and his writers, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, seem to have a greatly difficult time understanding what the word “epic” means. An epic entails a big story, filled with big characters, or big motivations, or big emotions, or maybe even big ideas. The only things big about Dead Man’s Chest are the absurd adventure set-pieces and the criminal running-time of 150 minutes; nothing here is used to advance the story. Verbinski is no Steven Spielberg. He’s a barely competent Stephen Sommers who thinks that bigger and sillier gestures are a formula for success without any inherent justification.

With the movie’s scale bloated to such a degree and little to fill it, the one good thing Pirates had going for it — Depp — has a lot of problems from the get-go. As Captain Jack, he’s still willing to fritter his way through the picture in amusing fashion, but his character is nothing but a charming caricature with nowhere to go, let alone take the “serious” turn the writers attempt halfway through by confronting his morality (or lack thereof). Coupling this with the fact that he shares screen time with a horde of other (often unnecessary) characters, the spark that prompted so many to embrace the first installment is unlikely to catch this time around.

Ultimately, none of the actors can really be held accountable, as they all appear relatively appropriate in their roles. The problem is that almost nothing in this movie is particularly relevant to anything; it’s so overblown and empty that the slightest instances are crammed with menial dialogue and the set-pieces (Jack runs from cannibals, Jack is attached to a pole and falls off a cliff, Jack and Will and some guy duel inside a gigantic rolling windmill …) are so wantonly preposterous that they transcend the trivial entertainment they were meant to be and become sheer idiocy, which is what tends to happen when you stumble onto a pleasant, if inconsequential, movie and then decide that it merits an entire franchise.

Phillip Stephens is a movie critic for Pajiba.

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Too Much of a Mediocre Thing

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest / Phillip Stephens

Film | July 7, 2006 | Comments ()




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