The newest Pirates of the Caribbean film, On Stranger Tides, isn't exactly a disaster, but that's not as reassuring as you might think. The movie is lacking in nearly every way: the plot, the acting, the strangely stunted sense of scope (despite visually sumptuous locations), even the villain feels less imposing than he ought to. I'm half tempted to chalk it up to director Rob Marshall, who was not only taking over for Gore Verbinski after three films, but has a track record (Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha, Nine) that in no way prepares him for a rousing adventure film of swash-buckling and derring do. But I don't know that I'm willing to hang it all on Marshall - the story doesn't really work in the first place.
On Stranger Tides. The film, accordingly, feels like characters from earlier Pirates films shoehorned into a separate narrative, one that can hardly accommodate them. At first it seemed odd to me that a series that managed to incorporate Davey Jones, voodoo curses, the Kraken, the afterworld, and undead pirates would be unable to intermingle with zombified crew members, mermaids, and the Fountain of Youth (hinted at in At World's End), but the end result is a movie that shouldn't have Jack Sparrow in it but does.
Speaking of which, I don't know what Johnny Depp was thinking during On Stranger Tides. It's as though he knows he supposed to be playing Jack Sparrow, but often forgets under the demands of playing the lead (a semi-romantic lead at that), so for much of the film he's painfully ordinary, and then as though he's remembered he's playing Captain Jack, Depp will swagger or make a funny face. The performance is uneven at best, but then again Jack Sparrow should never be the lead of one of the Pirates films. He functions best as a secondary character - a ruthless, conniving trouble maker with rotten luck - as a counterpoint to Will Turner and Elizabeth Swan. If coupled with compelling leads and a strong villain, Depp is able to shine and be loopy. On his own, he's adrift.
And there's nobody in On Stranger Tides to help take the attention away from Depp's "am I or am I not Jack Sparrow" routine. Penelope Cruz doesn't have much to do as Angelica Teach, daughter of Blackbeard and someone who Jack (possibly) corrupted at a young age. Depp and Cruz do their damnedest to generate chemistry, and while the effort is evident, the end result is less than palpable. Worse off is Sam Clafin as Phillip, a missionary being held captive aboard The Queen Anne's Revenge, who has as much chemistry with fellow captive Astrid Bergès-Frisbey (as mermaid Syreena) as a couple of mops in a bucket. Their story is so uninteresting that I failed to care a) when Blackbeard appears to kill Phillip, and b) when the film never bothers to explain exactly how Syreena "saves" him near the end.
Oh, speaking of Blackbeard, it's probably fair to note just how unimpressive Ian McShane is in a role that should have fit him like a glove. Instead of the imposing presence that Edward Teach ought to be, given that he has a supernatural power over his very ship, McShane underplays Blackbeard at every opportunity. I never once believed he was dangerous, capable of betrayal, or short tempered and cruel enough to murder people (even though he does). The sense of urgency surrounding his need to find the Fountain - due to a prophecy of his death - also never connect in McShane's face. He says all the right things, but one never believes that he's really concerned about anything. Instead of towering, he's annoying - his cruelty is tacked on and half-hearted.
Only Geoffery Rush emerges with something close to a memorable performance, though it takes the better half of the film for Barbossa to emerge as anything more than a stooge for the Royal Navy. Stephen Graham (Boardwalk Empire, Snatch) has flashes as Scrum, the sort of substitute Gibbs (although actual Gibbs, Kevin McNally, is in the film and traveling with Barbossa). Keith Richards has a perfunctory cameo that makes even less sense than his appearance in At World's End. By the end of the film I'd forgotten that Richard Griffiths (Withnail & I) played the King.
So Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides sometimes looks nice, is sometimes entertaining, but not really good enough to make it more than a movie you could wander in and out of freely. Pay no attention to the mermaid tears or silver chalices or the rules of finding the fountain, because they really don't matter. They belong to another story, one without a nice wrap-up scene featuring Gibbs and Jack on the beach, explaining what just happened. Unfortunately we have this middling affair, not bad enough to be avoided and not good enough to recommend. If you, like me, were invested in the previous films, then On Stranger Tides is likely to keep you half involved for two hours and fifteen minutes, but the nagging feeling you could have watched something better will creep up repeatedly.