The fourth film in the Pirates of Caribbean franchise, On Stranger Tides, puts me in the mind of a quote from Steve Martin’s Navin R. Johnson in The Jerk. To paraphrase: “I know we’ve only known each other for four movies, but to me it seems like nine weeks and five days. The first movie seemed like a week and the second movie seemed like five days. And the third movie seemed like a week again and the fourth movie seemed like eight days.” It’s not exactly precise; the fourth movie felt more like six days than eight, but the sentiment holds. Another quote from The Jerk as applied to the Caribbean franchise proves apt as well: “Die you random son of a bitch!”
The fourth film in the series has been billed as a reset; a stand-alone feature. There’s a new director, Rob Marshall; some baggage has been excised — the wood (Orlando Bloom) and the plank (Keira Knightley); and the focus has been shifted squarely onto Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow, who was a supporting character in the first Pirates film, the comedic relief that provided reprieve from the film’s tedious Disney-manufactured machinations. But we know what happens when you turn a comic scene-stealer into a lead character: Jack Black happens. And On Stranger Tides is Jack Sparrow’s Gulliver’s Travels.
The MacGuffin in On Stranger Tides is the Fountain of Youth, and Captain Jack has knowledge to its whereabouts. This makes him valuable to England’s King George, who has hired Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush, once again the franchise’s best reason to watch) to locate the Fountain with the coerced assistance of Jack. The first half hour of the film is essentially sword-fight-and-run scene-filler built around the brief and unexceptional cameos of Keith Richards and Judi Dench. Jack escapes Barbossa but winds up navigating a few absurd contrivances only to be knocked out and kidnapped by an ex-girlfriend, Angelica (Penelope Cruz). He wakes up on the Queen Anne’s Revege, the ship that belongs to Angelica’s father, Blackbeard (Ian McShane), who oversees a crew of pirate zombies. Angelica uses Jack to locate the Fountain for Blackbeard, who needs it to forestall a death predicted by a psychic. Meanwhile, Barbossa wants to locate the Fountain for the King, and because without them, On Stranger Tides wouldn’t have enough pointless characters, the Spanish are also in pursuit of the Fountain, too. Why not?
No lazy script would be complete unless the MacGuffin had two-for-one plot coupons. Chalices from the ship of Ponce de Leon and the tear of a mermaid must also be procured to make the Fountain of Youth work, which takes all parties involved and the film’s run-time on circuitous digressions. I will grant Rob Marshall this much, however: Although his mermaid/Christian missionary love story subplot is extraneous and dull, the initial vampire/mermaid/siren sequence — despite the aggressive use of CGI — is more thrilling than anything in the Pirates franchise since the original installment, and perhaps the only sequence in all four films that might disturb younger children.
Yet, despite a plot that’s paradoxically convoluted and nearly non-existent, more characters than you can shake a wooden leg at, and all the logic of a birther conspiracy, Johnny Depp still somehow manages to rise above the franchise’s bloated carcass. He’s in nearly every scene, and yet it feels like he’s not in the movie enough. Depp floats through like paper in a breeze and miraculously comes out the other side unscathed, although now even he’s being upstaged by Geoffrey Rush’s lively scene-stealing antics. Surprisingly, it’s Ian McShane’s weak depiction of Blackbeard that kicks the anchor; his voice is commanding, but there’s no life to his character. I’m not even sure that Penelope Cruz signed on to On Stranger Tides: I think they just spliced together a clip-reel of all of her other English-speaking roles and digitally added a pirate costume to her frame. They may as well have.
In the end, it doesn’t matter how sensational the performances are or are not; the ship has sunk, and the ocean scavengers are picking at the waterlogged flesh of the crew. In The Curse of the Black Pearl, Depp’s magnetism managed to briefly distract us from the crass reality that the entire Pirates enterprise is built on the foundation of an amusement park attraction. But after four films, neither Depp nor Rush can obscure the fact that we’re all being taken on a ride, one that is neither thrilling nor amusing. On Stranger Tides is like any Disneyland roller coaster: They cultivate long lines to give the illusion of excitement, make you stand around for two hours eating overpriced concessions, and reward you by jostling you around in a circle, dropping you off exactly where they left you, a pound heavier and $20 lighter. As Navin R. Johnson remarked concerning a carnival game, “It’s a profit deal … Take a chance and win some crap!” At this point in the Pirates series, you know what to expect. The only Jerks remaining are the ones still paying for the crap.