“Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” Plunders Your Moviegoing Budget

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By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic

A pundit once opined that if you put 100 monkeys in a room with 100 typewriters, one would eventually write the great American novel. Well, this would-be pundit has now witnessed cause to update the theorem. Put 100 monkeys in a room with 100 computers and one is bound to duplicate the script for “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.”

Actually, it might be a task more worthy of a literary alchemist when you consider that the simply stated premise —“Jack Sparrow and Barbossa embark on a quest to find the elusive fountain of youth, only to discover that Blackbeard and his daughter are after it, too”— is stretched into two hours and seventeen minutes of barely intelligible babble.

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However, matey, before I’m ordered to walk the plank for sacrilege against this beloved Johnny Depp franchise, methinks it judicious to note that it isn’t about the script. But rather, ‘tis a medium for the thespian to play heartthrob whilst wearing pirate pajamas and swaggering in the affected amble now associated with his Captain Jack Sparrow.

He has become a caricature unto himself, with just the slightest bit of swashbuckler DNA linking him to progenitors like the brawling Wallace Beery or the very handsome Errol Flynn. So the trick is to showcase him in some semblance of a plot whilst tossing the mess with a lot of filmic gewgaws and FX in hopes it’ll pass for a motion picture.

In a modern twist of the artistic process as it relates to the media and the hyperkinetic cross-pollination that occurs therein, “Pirates 4” is proof positive that the music video mode is now fully capable of invading and body-snatching a movie. If shanghaied and forced to see this film, your best bet is to just sit back and watch the pretty pictures.

Problem is, the blinking-blimey pictures aren’t all that pretty or enticing this go-round. Although presented in 3-D, the colorful flourishes here and there are counteracted by just as many murky and tortuous scenes. Even the swordplay, done under the tutelage of Bob Anderson (who actually compared Depp’s skill to Flynn’s), gets to be a bit much.

Funny thing is, this is quite a cast. If you threw them up in the air, odds are they’d land in a far more considered setting. Mr. Depp’s gift goes without saying. Penelope Cruz as Blackbeard’s daughter, Angelica, is easily his dramatic match. And Geoffrey Rush as fellow pirate Barbossa is so talented that we easily forgive him this payday performance.

But more curious than how said skill can be brought to serve such abysmal mediocrity is how a script this simple could bloom such indiscernibly muttered dialogue. In all fairness, there is a smattering of double entendres, bon mots and witty snipes. But amidst the canon explosions, loud music and general confusion, many an enunciation eludes us.

I’d be ridiculously naïve to suggest that the ragtag storyline about trying to find the Fountain of Youth might have imparted some enlightening notes about the Ponce De Leon legend. But it doesn’t. And the film’s adherents couldn’t care. So I won’t. Instead, the tale follows the usual scavenger hunt formula Hollywood has been employing of late.

Revivified in the “Indiana Jones” films, the old chestnut applies a Rube Goldberg series of action-reactions on a grand scale. Implying a mystical power, it holds that there is latent magic just waiting to be sprung. In this case it involves two silver chalices, a mermaid’s tear and a bunch of nonsense that has something to do with voodoo dolls.

To compensate for the dearth of thought while providing a romantic aspect, Penelope Cruz is first introduced in quasi-“Yentl”/ “Victor Victoria” form. Posing as Jack in order to gather a crew to search for the fountain, it’s assumed eyebrows will be raised when a swordfight between the two turns into a kiss. Call it the sexual confusion component.

The big—and only— joke is, Angelica, who may or may not actually be Blackbeard’s daughter, had her intentions of becoming a nun thwarted when buccaneer Jack Sparrow mistook her convent for a brothel. Hence, she has apparently activated her backup plan and is now a lady pirate. Gee, it’s a good thing she kept up with her swordsmanship, huh?

Pity is, the potential romanticism of pirates and the high seas is frittered away in a lot of tedious gobbledygook. While Cruz and Depp hint at good chemistry, the tongue-in-cheek repartee is no substitute for real interplay. All of which leaves the more discriminating of me hearties no option but to deep-six “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.”

“Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” rated PG-13, is a Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures release directed by Rob Marshall and stars Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz and Geoffrey Rush. Running time: 137 minutes


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