I find the best way to spot a mediocre film is to gauge just how much of its running time I spend thinking about what I’m going to order for dinner afterward. So let me tell you about the poutine order I placed after seeing Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales.
Start with the basic poutine — nice, squeaky cheese curds over fries, drizzled in gravy. Then, because this is America, douse it in bacon cheeseburger bits. Add some nice peppercorn seasoning, to give everything a smoky kick. And, finally, just a dab of chili. Hit it with a shot of malt vinegar, and you’re in business. So, you ask, how was it? Well, it was excellent. Just the thing you want to have waiting for you when you exit a movie that’s, conservatively speaking, longer than the history of the universe.
Oh, you meant how was the movie? It was okay, I guess! Second best Pirates of the Caribbean movie! With a bullet! (For the record, that’s not really a compliment.)
Dead Men Tell No Tales is pointlessly busy and exhausting
There are plenty of good things in Dead Men Tell No Tales. Directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg (who were behind the very good Norwegian film Kon-Tiki), along with cinematographer Paul Cameron, come up with some pretty shots of gorgeous locations scattered around the world. At least one early action sequence made me giggle with delight at its Rube Goldberg logic. And Javier Bardem, who plays new villain and ghost pirate Salazar, apparently ate several whole hams before shooting.
But those good things are mostly stranded in a desert of meaningless subplots and B-stories. For whatever reason, the response to the lightning-bolt success of the first Pirates movie back in 2003 (a legitimately fun film that felt like nothing else at the time) was to pile on a bunch of characters and a bunch of backstory. And over the three films between that one and this one, those characters and backstory kept piling up — to the point where this film keeps cutting away to Geoffrey Rush’s Captain Barbossa (the first film’s villain, the second film’s plot twist, the third film’s unwilling ally, etc., etc.) seemingly because Rush heard a Pirates movie was filming, showed up on set, and couldn’t be turned away.
The smartest thing I’ve ever heard about the series was from a friend, who was trying to defend Dead Man’s Chest, the very first sequel from 2006, after I found it not just disappointing but actively irritating. That film was, he said, a series of Looney Tunes shorts about the character Jack Sparrow, as though he were Bugs Bunny transplanted into our reality, made to look like Johnny Depp, but subjected to the same old slapstick shit. The movie didn’t have a plot because it didn’t need one — it was an excuse to see Depp run around and do goofy things.
And Dead Men Tell No Tales is probably the closest the series has come since that film to recapturing that aesthetic. (Film three, 2007’s At World’s End, was pointlessly lugubrious and self-impressed; 2011’s On Stranger Tides was a listless bore.) Just when things seem like they’re flagging, it will rally for another rambunctious action sequence, and it’s fun to see, say, Jack Sparrow in a guillotine that almost keeps chopping his head off but never quite does.
This might be fine if Dead Men Tell No Tales were content to simply be a collection of setpieces, each bigger than the last. That describes, say, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and that movie’s action sequences are a whole lot of fun.
But Dead Men Tell No Tales tries to serve far too many masters with its story. It wants to introduce new characters to carry the series forward should Depp decide he never wants to make another Pirates movie. (Despite Disney occasionally marketing this as a “final” adventure, there’s lots of places for the story to go at credits’ end.) It wants to tie up various plot threads from the earlier movies that you probably didn’t realize were supposed to be plot threads. It wants to give each and every character their own subplot. It wants romance, and daring escapes, and swashbuckling.
Most of all, it feels like it wants a nap.
Why does anything happen in this movie?
More times than I should have in Dead Men Tell No Tales — which is to say with just about every new scene — I found myself wondering, “Why are these people doing this?” Sometimes, this was because the film’s editing places the effect before the cause: You’ll see a character do something, wonder why they’re doing it, then see the reasoning behind it one shot later. But a lot of the time, it boiled down to something like, “Why are these people falling in love?”
The needless busy-ness of the plot means that all character interactions fall by the wayside. New character Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites, playing the son of Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann from the first three films) doesn’t seem to fall in love with fellow new character Karina Smith (Kaya Scodelario, trying her damnedest) so much as he’s told by people around him that he’s falling in love with her. The actors have chemistry, but it’s buried beneath everything else in the movie, leaving them in a weird “Mulder and Scully of the sea” dynamic (he believes in ghost pirates; she doesn’t!) that’s supposed to carry them forward to a kiss. They don’t have a relationship; they have a screenplay arc.
Similarly, all of the characters have “motivation” — primarily to possess Poseidon’s Trident and thus control the magic of the sea — but it’s hard to square this with every other film in the franchise being about trying to control the powers of the sea (which is damn near all of them). Not helping matters is the ephemeral nature of what the Trident actually does.
Sure, it’s a plot device, but at one point, seven separate parties have seven separate reasons for wanting to possess it, which places so much weight on the plot device that it’s unsustainable. Think, again, of Indiana Jones: The Nazis want the Ark of the Covenant so they can rule the world; Indiana Jones wants to keep it from them so they don’t rule the world. It’s simplistic, but because there are only two sides, with directly opposing motivations, it works.
It also works because Indiana Jones and his pals are actual characters, unlike Jack Sparrow, who is, by now, simply a collection of tics. Depp has frequently been accused of creating characters who are all outside flim-flam, with no soul, but his best work (including his first few Jack Sparrow performances) unites the outer shell with something bruised at the character’s core. Here, he sometimes seems like he’s doing a Jack Sparrow impersonation.
Indeed, at times, I wasn’t sure why Jack was in the movie. He doesn’t drive the plot in any way. He has barely anything to do with the other characters. The mugging is tiresome. Yet the story revolves around him for reasons I can’t fathom. Much of the same was true in the first film, but there, Jack was the spice that livened up the proceedings. Here, he’s a big, heaping mouthful of garlic trying to be the main course.
Let’s talk about Johnny Depp for a second
If you’re inclined to believe the domestic-abuse allegations filed against Depp by his ex-wife Amber Heard (as I am), then supporting anything the actor does might feel like a vaguely immoral, or at least icky thing to do. (Depp and Heard settled out of court.)
Don’t get me wrong: I do believe there are times when separating the art from the artist — but acknowledging that the artist has done horrible things — is important. There are an awful lot of people who have done awful, awful things, and sometimes, you just want to enjoy a favorite movie without having to think about that. The line for everybody will be different.
But separating the art from the artist is a lot easier when the artist in question seems to be pushing themselves and trying new things. Whatever you think of Casey Affleck’s Oscar win for Manchester by the Sea, he gave a stunning performance in that film. By contrast, even Depp seems bored by Jack Sparrow in this movie (except, amusingly, when he shares the screen with Paul McCartney for a couple of minutes), which only led me to wonder why his career seems to have surged in the wake of Heard’s accusations. (This movie was already in production at the time Heard made her accusations.)
It’s been years since the actor did anything vital, and his future is filled with Fantastic Beasts and Universal monsters movies. He’s not terribly bankable outside of Pirates (as Scott Mendelson underlines here), especially in recent years and even when you account for international box office, and he was the headline star of Alice Through the Looking Glass, one of the biggest flops of 2016. So why? Why keep employing him?
There are no comforting answers to that question. But at the same time, that I was thinking about it at all was a sign of what a snooze this movie is, all heavy action and plotting and no center.
I wish I had spent more time thinking about dinner.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales opens nationwide Friday, May 26.