If James Dean were alive today, he would probably be playing some twitchy-but-lovable detective or superhero or pirate in a never-ending summer-movie franchise. Method actors used to stay in their territory (indie films and prestige dramas, the theater), while action stars had theirs (summer and holiday blockbusters). Now, thanks to Johnny Depp and Robert Downey Jr., everything is mixed up. “Edgy, volatile and fey,” it turns out, is highly marketable when you put an Iron Man suit or some eyeliner on it. Dean could have made millions from action-figure sales and been nominated for Oscars — just ask James Franco.
To retain their hipster cred, all these thespians need do is assume an attitude of ironic disaffection toward (but never outright disdain for) their lucrative gigs. Depp didn’t seem to be worried about losing his when he recently admitted to Entertainment Weekly that he hadn’t bothered to watch the completed second and third Pirates of the Caribbean installments — nor, in fact, was he sure what happened in them. “I remember talking to [director Gore Verbinski] at certain points during production of 2 or 3, and saying: ‘I don’t really know what this means.’” he told the magazine. “He said, ‘Neither do I, but let’s just shoot it.’”
Depp hastened to assure EW readers that the fourth film, which his Jack Sparrow character dominates without competition from the lovebirds played by Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley, would make more sense. It does, but not to much purpose. Directed by Rob Marshall this time, On Stranger Tides plays like a clip show of Sparrow’s greatest hits (here he is petulant! seductive! sneaky! secretly good hearted!) crossed with a treasure-hunting video game.
This time, the goal is the fabled Fountain of Youth. The Spanish and British are racing to find it, with returning heavy Captain Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) helming King George’s ship. Also on the trail are new heavy Blackbeard (Ian McShane), his zombie minions, and his swashbuckling first mate and daughter, Angelica (Penélope Cruz). She has a never-fleshed-out amorous history with Sparrow, on the basis of which the two stars trade weak innuendos after she forcibly enlists him to guide her crew to the prize.
As in a game, reaching this goal involves fighting monsters and rivals, obtaining talismans and remembering silly “ritual” instructions. What it doesn’t involve is anything of emotional consequence, anything that sticks to the characters and changes them. The closest the film comes to genuine fear and wonder is a scene where Blackbeard’s crew baits a flock of lovely, vicious mermaids. But that, too, quickly becomes just an action jumble.
Hard-core fans of the Pirates series won’t be disappointed by this outing, and they might retort that emotional weight is the enemy of anarchic fun. But anarchic fun stretched over four two-hour-plus epics becomes ... less fun, and Depp has shown he can use his manic side more productively. The animated lizards and rodents of Rango, his most recent collaboration with Verbinski, had more believable and consistent characterizations than Sparrow and Angelica do here.
There’s an irony at the heart of these pirate movies, with their character actors afflicted with bad skin and faux-Shakespearean dialogue (“I be placed in a bewilderment”); their computer-animated supernatural critters; their busy action setpieces. “I don’t know what this means; let’s just shoot it” pretty much sums up the filmmakers’ approach, and Jack Sparrow would applaud their improvisatory spirit. But all this devil-may-care, neo-vaudeville energy results in a reliably bankable, remarkably uniform Disney product. We live in a world where a writhing Method actor in eyeliner has become boring, and that’s just sad.