The best way to go into Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is to think of it as the first film in a brand new franchise; a franchise in which mermaids love men zombies won’t eat you and a Fountain of Youth exists but all laws of logic reasoning and competent storytelling don’t. Although screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio were smart enough to sever the narrative ties to the first two sequels in their franchise’s fourth outing the latest swashbuckling adventure in the series shares most of the same faults its predecessors faced.
Director Rob Marshall (Chicago) steps in for Gore Verbinski in On Stranger Tides but you’ll be hard-pressed to find his contributions to the already-flashy film that finds our hero Capt. Jack Sparrow (the inimitable Johnny Depp) on the hunt for the fore mentioned fountain. Of course he’s not the only one looking for eternal life: also in tow are nameless stereotypical Spaniards the English crown headed by a reformed Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) and Blackbeard a ruthless pirate who looks and sounds a lot like Ian McShane. Their paths cross on numerous occasions as the story scrambles across the map culminating in a splashy battle in a magical meadow where Ponce de Leon’s greatest discovery lies.
Less a cohesive story and more a collection of individual set pieces linked together by nonsensical dialogue and supernatural occurrences the film isn’t all that hard to follow if you don’t strain yourself doing so. The sequence of events collide so conveniently for the characters you can’t help but call the screenplay anything but the result of complacency while the film itself sails so swiftly from point to point it’s actually a waste of time to dwell on plot holes and motives. Disrupting its momentum (which is one of the few things the film has going for it) is an unwatchable romance between Sam Claflin’s missionary Philip and Syrena (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) one of a handful of murderous mermaids who do battle with Blackbeard’s crew. Their bland courtship will have you begging for Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley to return to the high seas and that’s saying something.
The all-female fish people are one of a few additions to the Pirates world but their effect on the film is negligible outside of being the impetus for the coolest action sequence in the picture and perhaps the most unnerving of the series. The others include Penelope Cruz as Blackbeard’s busty daughter Angelica and Stephen Graham as shipmate Scrum. The former feels out of place among the cartoony happenings but provides much needed sass while the latter fills in for Kevin McNally’s Gibbs for much of the film and is a pleasure to watch for some hammy comedic moments.
As always however this is Depp’s show and he continues to put a smile on my face with his charisma and theatrical presence. Even though he’s operating on autopilot throughout you can’t help but marvel at his energy and enthusiastic output as he literally fuels the fun in the film. The same can be said of Rush who’s given a meatier and more significant arc this time around. He trades quips with Depp as if they were a golden-age comedy duo and they remain the most appealing attraction in the franchise. Though he brings an undeniable sense of danger to the picture I was sadly underwhelmed by McShane’s Blackbeard a character with such a domineering reputation and imposing look he should’ve been stealing scenes left and right. Instead I felt he phoned his performance in though that could’ve been the result of Marshall’s indirection.
No better than the genre-bending original but a slight improvement over Dead Man’s Chest and At Worlds End On Stranger Tides suffers centrally from lack of a commanding captain. Marshall’s role is relegated to merely on-set facilitator or perhaps liaison between legions of talented craftspeople that make the movie look so good. Whatever vision he had for this venture if he had a unique take at all is chewed up and spit out by the engines of the Jerry Bruckheimer blockbuster factory rendering the film as mechanical as the ride from which it is based.
Don Johnston (Murray)--yes he often gets the allusion to Melanie Griffith's ex but he's tired of hearing it by now--has just been left by yet another girlfriend (Julie Delpy). He doesn't really mind one way or the other. In fact he doesn't have much emotion towards any aspect of his life except for perhaps lying on the couch watching his TV and listening to his offbeat music. Even when receives an anonymous letter in the mail from an ex-lover telling him that he has a now-grown son he shrugs it off. But once his quasi-sleuth neighbor Winston (Jeffrey Wright) gets wind of this he spurs Don on to investigate further. And so the journey begins with Don embarking on a cross-country trek to find the writer of the letter. He revisits his old flames: a widow (Sharon Stone) who's raising a daughter (aptly) named Lolita; an animal communicator (Jessica Lange) with a thriving "practice"; a rather sterile real estate agent (Six Feet Under's Frances Conroy) who's loath to recall her past; and a country bumpkin (Tilda Swinton) resistant to Don's inquiries. Fed up and weary Don returns home to his comfortable misery much to Winston's dismay. But a chance encounter around town sends Don spinning in circles waking him up for the first time in eons.
Much has been said about the minimalist acting in Flowers. That could be because there is actually minimal acting in the film. Instead the focus is on what's not spoken. What's between the lines the dynamics between the characters and what's going on internally--and Murray is brilliant at it. The actor is at his deadpan-best. The neo-Murray embodies everything this man's past has reduced him to--without having to actually rehash said past. Of course we hate to say this since we've been disappointed in the past but Murray may get another good shot at winning his sought-after Oscar. As his partner in crime the always dazzling Wright (HBO's Angels in America)--the Stanley Kubrick of actors who chooses roles that will not compromise his artistic integrity--provides all the overt comedy and interactions we might have expected from Murray. It's a flawless performance. As Don's four ex-flames the actresses' collective screen time are short but necessarily succinct. Most noteworthy among them is Swinton a native Brit who is utterly unrecognizable as Don's backwoods ex.
Writer-director Jim Jarmusch is truly in a class of his own. The auteur with highly eclectic tastes who is also revered in the indie cult community puts out movies few and far between. But he's always prided himself on the fact his films such as Coffee and Cigarettes and Stranger Than Paradise are limited only to his arthouse devotees. Yet with Flowers there has been some trepidation from even his most faithful that this film may be his most mainstream to date. Heaven forbid! It still doesn't detract from the film's brilliance. As with most of Jarmusch's pieces Flowers' central core is discovering the beauty in the mundane. And anyone who thinks Jarmusch may have sold out will be put into their places after seeing the film's most-divisive climax--an ending that is far from the cut-and-dry sweetness to most audiences are accustomed. The writer-director also demonstrates an uncanny ability to tap into Murray's dry sense of humor and cynical outlook on life better than other director. Having previously worked together in Cigarettes we can only hope that the collaboration of Murray and Jarmusch becomes the Johnny Depp/Tim Burton of indie world.