We all have our weaknesses. I, for example, am fond of storylines that don’t follow formulae and am a complete sucker for actors who seem to be having fun on screen. If you give you me that, I’ll forgive all manner of sins like, oh, a completely nonsensical plot, wildly uneven tone, and slack, overlong pacing.
Take the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie. I’d be the first to admit that it’s not good—what with that completely nonsensical plot, wildly uneven tone, and slack, overlong pacing—but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to having enjoyed it anyway.
Much of the nonsense stems from the radical inconsistency of death, tragically permanent one minute and easily reversed the next. Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow, the breakout star of the series, “died” at the end of the second movie in a battle with some kind of sea monster, but at the outset of the third, he’s not dead, exactly, but in some sort of otherworldly limbo that his compatriots can reach in an ordinary ship by sailing off the edge of the world (?) or something like that. I’m not sure. The crew has to rescue Jack because he holds one of the mystical Pieces of Eight that the international pirates’ council used to bind the stormy sea goddess Calypso in human form to calm the waters, but now the waters are so calm that the all-powerful East India Company—with Davy Jones and his undead crew in its thrall—threatens to crush the pirates forever, so they’ve decided that Calypso wasn’t so bad after all. Meanwhile star-crossed sweethearts Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) and Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) are quarreling for some reason or another. I think it has to do with broken trust, but I’m not sure because that whole subplot is silly in a conventional way rather than a dada-esque way and thus rather boring, so I may have checked out when they started to bicker. And there’s some to-do about Will and his poor barnacled dad, and Davy Jones’ long-ago affair with Calypso, and Elizabeth’s former fiancé’s belated realization that the villainous Lord Cutler is not to be trusted. All the plot threads tangle together wildly, some dropped, some pursued, some slyly transformed—and none of it holding up to much thought.
And yet it kind of works, in its way, because in the Pirates universe, piracy signifies not cold-blooded, cutthroat violence but free-spirited independence, a realm in which Elizabeth can forego her corset and Will can pursue a relationship with a woman far above his humble station and Jack can eat, drink, be merry, and wear black eyeliner all his natural life and—who knows?—maybe even longer. Why shouldn’t the screenwriters be similarly unbound, free to pursue any whimsy without regard for logic or narrative arc? I mean, that fanciful sequence in which Jack captains a crew of other Jacks across a sea of sand with the ship conveyed forward by mysterious stones that, on closer inspection, appear to be crabs—it didn’t make any sense, but that very surreality—and the enthusiasm with which Depp embraced it—was what made it so delightful.
All the actors threw themselves into the stew of nonsense with gleeful abandon. Geoffrey Rush and Chow Yun-Fat merrily chewed the scenery as duplicitous pirates hailing from different oceans. I heard a clip of Rush’s dialogue on the radio, and out of context, it sounded offputtingly over the top, but within the movie, the theatrical enunciation and broad gestures and artfully expressive eyebrows were delicious. Even Bloom and Knightley were surprisingly fun in their tamer roles. Piracy suits Bloom better than the earnest self-righteousness of the upstanding younger Will, and Knightley makes Elizabeth so wonderfully tough and resourceful that one can almost believe her dramatic ascent through the ranks of piratedom.
The movie works best in the fluffy frivolity of its middle. The opening, in which dozens of ragged individuals are summarily executed on suspicion of piracy, is wincingly contemporary. Lines about suspending habeus corpus and the right to assembly, among others, should just be breezy shorthand for Bad Guys, but in our present political climate, when those constitutional rights have somehow become controversial, the scene is terribly upsetting, casting a pall over what should be (and elsewhere is) a rollicking crowd-pleaser.
The movie’s ending, on the other hand, ultimately collapses in on itself from all that goofy crowd-pleasing. The slack pacing becomes more of a problem, and the big finale is overlong and wearyingly chaotic.
But in between, At World’s End is a hoot. Intellectually, I understand Sean’s exasperation with the flick, but while he sighed and rolled his eyes at each inexplicable development and campy line of dialogue and hilariously overblown musical cue, I giggled my fool head off. I couldn’t help myself. I was having too much fun.