Is recapturing the fun, pep and zest of the first "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie really THAT difficult? Because "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" tries to do exactly that, and ends up being surprisingly dull.
Let's review. "Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl" (2003) was the first Hollywood film in maybe decades to evoke the fun of the old pirate swashbucklers. There was a simple quest (a cursed gold piece), a simple love story, a great comic-relief antihero in Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow, a scene-chewing villain in Geoffrey Rush's Barbossa, and some well-staged action bits. It was an old-school blockbuster that was scads funnier and more exciting than any movie based on an amusement-park ride had a right to be. And you knew exactly what each character wanted: Will wanted Elizabeth, Elizabeth wanted adventure, Jack wanted his ship, Barbossa wanted to eat apples.
The first two sequels -- "Dead Man's Chest" (2006) and "At World's End" (2007) -- were shot back-to-back. And, while they made scads of cash, they also made a crucial mistake: They tried to "turn up the volume" in their eagerness to please, but turned up the volume on all the wrong things. The character arcs were lost. There were roughly 8 billion half-developed supporting characters, subplots, secret meetings and double-, triple- and quadruple-crosses. The supernatural quest was utter nonsense. (Someone explain to me why the squid-man's heart was in a box and somehow controlled the ocean and how this intersected with the Voodoo priestess who was secretly a goddess who became 50 feet tall and turned into crabs and made a whirlpool.) The action scenes and set dressings were wall-to-wall and perfectly illustrated the storytelling principle that when everyone is shouting, you can't hear what anyone is saying. It wore you down.
To their credit, producer Jerry Bruckheimer, Depp and the filmmakers seem to have at least understood this. I will say this for "On Stranger Tides": It's less convoluted than the previous two, it locks its camera down a lot more and feels less overstuffed, and it sort of makes sense, at least until the climax. But there's also a tiredness to the proceedings that's mildly depressing.
In other words, the new movie also wears you down -- but for different and altogether sadder reasons.
The credits tell us the story is "based on" the Disneyland ride, but "suggested by" the 1987 novel "On Stranger Tides" by Tim Powers, which was not about Jack Sparrow even a little. The new movie jettisons most of the previous films' characters, and features three different crews looking for the Fountain of Youth: a Spanish armada, a group of British-backed privateers led by a bewigged Barbossa, and a pirate crew led by the sorcerer Blackbeard (Ian McShane) and his daughter/first mate Angelica (Penélope Cruz). Sparrow, who once had an affair with Angelica, spends the movie flitting between the various crews, causing his usual trouble.
Oh, and for no other reason than replacement-young-hunk value -- Will and Elizabeth are nowhere to be found in this movie -- there's a hot missionary (Sam Claflin) hanging out on Blackbeard's ship. His love interest, inexplicably, is a captive mermaid (Astrid Berges-Frisbey). One of her tears is required to activate the Fountain of Youth -- which sports instructions so needlessly complicated, you'd think it had been given to your kid unassembled at Christmas.
Previous "Pirates" director Gore Verbinski has been replaced by Rob Marshall ("Chicago") -- and I'm sorry to say that Marshall lacks Verbinski's visual gifts and knack for action pacing (which Verbinski beautifully demonstrates in "Rango"). "On Stranger Tides" is a remarkably bland-looking movie and a stupefying waste of the 3-D gimmick. More crucially, it lacks zip.
Depp has taken the form of Jack Sparrow, but for any number of hard-to-pin-down reasons (the script, the pacing, possible boredom, a lack of chemistry with the unfunny Cruz, the vagaries of aging), he's not getting the laughs he once got, and you find yourself wondering if Jack's really cut out to be a lead character.
There are perky moments here and there -- Jack planning a mutiny, Jack and Barbossa yakking about old times while tied to trees and sipping rum out of a wooden leg, a crazed attack on sailors by piranha-vicious mermaids -- but they're mere moments. Much of the film's action feels minimally motivated -- several middle-aged characters aren't even interested in availing themselves of the Fountain of Youth's powers. As a result, what's onscreen often feels like a bunch of vaguely busy running around and erranding, only slightly slower and less confusing than in the prior sequels.
There's a nice dramatic idea involving three of the main characters in the film's climax, but it's surrounded by nonsensical noise -- with distracting side characters literally striding out of the mist to announce their presence like they're in Monty Python's Spanish Inquisition.
I wouldn't call "On Stranger Tides" a disaster, but it does take everything that was charming about the first film and remixes it far less carefully and at a slower pitch, rendering it mildly diverting and shockingly sludgy. Which makes it sort of a quiet disaster, I guess.
Finally: Don't bother springing for 3-D. It adds nothing, unless you enjoy swords flying tackily at your face. _____
The Friday, May 13 "Cort and Fatboy" podcast features my review of "Bridesmaids" (and my shameful admission that haven't seen "The Hangover" yet, though I will before the sequel opens). The rest of the show is full of non sequiturs -- including an alternate-universe history of Lewis & Clark; "Romancing the Stone" as yacht-rock action film; a call for Donald Glover as the comic-book Spider-Man; and a definitive answer to my request that the Moon turn into Unicron in "Transformers 3."
* And also yes I am (now) fully aware that Thomas Jefferson, not Andrew Jackson, launched the Corps of Discovery.
In an age of increasingly bland, formulaic rom-coms that seem to star the same three actresses, "Bridesmaids" is almost a revelation.
"Bridesmaids" is a semi-romantic comedy, produced by Judd Apatow and directed by Paul Feig, in which an ensemble of women get to play characters as full-bodied, hard-R raunchy and screwed-up as the men in, say, Apatow's "Knocked Up" and "The 40 Year Old Virgin." At no point does "Bridesmaids" star Jennifer Aniston, Kate Hudson or Katherine Heigl. At no point does any character have a fantasy publishing career in New York. At no point is any character punished for focusing on her career instead of dithering about boys.
Of course, none of the above matters if the movie isn't funny. And while it's uneven in a couple of key areas, "Bridesmaids" is frequently very funny -- playing like an entire film populated by the Wacky Best Friends in other, lesser comedies.
This includes the lead character, Annie (Kristen Wiig, who also co-wrote). Annie made the mistake of starting a gourmet bakery with her boyfriend in Milwaukee, Wisconsin during the recession. It failed. She lost the boyfriend. Now she works as a jewelry-store clerk, shares an apartment with two creepily infantile British siblings, frets about money, and has meaningless sex with a self-involved jackass (Jon Hamm).
Annie's sole emotional support is her easygoing best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph). And when Lillian announces that she's engaged and names Annie as her maid of honor -- forcing Annie to worry about Lillian's well-being instead of whining about her own -- the sudden loss of her support system sends Annie on a downward spiral. The tailspin is accelerated by Lillian's new friend and fellow bridesmaid Helen (Rose Byrne), a gorgeous upper-middle-class stepmom who serially undermines Annie to gain control of the wedding and Lillian's affections.
An Irish cop (Chris O'Dowd) provides Annie some emotional relief. The remaining bridesmaids -- a "stone-cold pack of weirdoes" that includes a cynical housewife (Wendi McLendon-Covey), a Disney-obsessed newlywed (Ellie Kemper), and the sex-and-violence-obsessed sister of the groom (Melissa McCarthy) -- provide us with comic relief.
As you may have gathered from the last few paragraphs, "Bridesmaids" follows the lead of other Apatow productions and finds much of its comedy in pain, horrifying awkwardness and the difficult work that goes into building and maintaining relationships. If you liked this in "Knocked Up," you'll probably like it here. Feig (who created "Freaks and Geeks" with Apatow) takes standard wedding rituals -- the bridal shower, the bachelorette party, the dress-fitting -- and lets each of them fly off the rails during long, digressive, occasionally disgusting set pieces in which he's clearly given his cast plenty of room to improvise. His cast rises to the challenge, especially McCarthy, who tears into her wild-woman role like a police K-9 gnawing a fugitive's arm. (She's a mini-revelation all her own, given that her previous work includes far-less-unhinged turns in "Gilmore Girls" and "Mike & Molly.")
If I have beefs with this often-laugh-out-loud movie, they're mostly minor, and they're mostly the same beefs I have with Apatow's best work. Like "40-Year-Old Virgin," "Bridesmaids" doesn't quite seem to know how to end. Like "Knocked Up" and some of Apatow's collaborations with director Adam McKay, "Bridesmaids" feels just slightly overlong. I also wish I could have seen more of Wiig and Rudolph's hugely likeable, laid-back buddy relationship at the beginning of the movie. More crucially, I wish Wiig spent the entire movie giving the same performance.
In her best moments, Wiig is vulnerable and natural and sad and even angry in a way I hadn't quite seen from her before. She finds laughs while tapping into a human, wounded place, and it's a thrilling departure from her "SNL" stylings. But during some of the comic set pieces -- especially during a heavily medicated airplane ride and an engagement-party toast in which Annie and Helen try and one-up each other -- Wiig seems to lapse into her clipped-voice sketch-comedy mode. Don't get me wrong: It made me laugh (especially when Annie gets some embarrassingly false courage from a bad mix of pills and Scotch), but it also made me feel a little like I was watching Wiig in two slightly different movies. _____
During the Friday, May 6 "Cort and Fatboy" podcast, I nerded out a bit on the surprisingly enjoyable "Thor." Also discussed: the weirdness of having your own Wikipedia page, "Star Wars" on Blu-Ray, "Conan," "Terminator," "Star Trek" on TV and "The Big Lebowski."