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2011: A Director’s Odyssey

Johnny Depp and Penélope Cruz in On Stranger Tides.  

And then it stops dead. A giant part of the story—the last act—is missing, as if Malick skipped a bunch of pages in the prayer book to get to the final hymn. The father, who has attempted to patent his inventions and lost every case, now loses his job. The family must move. As they drove away from the now-empty house, I thought, “That’s what we’ve been building to for two-plus hours? Leaving Waco?”

The Tree of Life is meant to portray the attempt of a man (Jack) who’s fallen from grace to return to the Garden, to make peace with a God he’ll never know or understand. But what exactly did he do wrong? There’s little hint in Penn’s Jack, who looks suitably stricken but is underwritten, and the final sequence—everyone from his past on a beach, hugging—is an embarrassment. Why did Malick stop in mid-arc? He either has no basic story­telling instincts or else purged them after all that time at Harvard with Stanley Cavell reading Heidegger and questioning whether we actually exist. My hunch is that existence precedes writing characters with essence.

The Tree of Life doesn’t jell, but it goes without saying that I recommend it un­reservedly. Will you find it ridiculously sublime or sublimely ridiculous? Don’t be afraid to find it both.

The fourth Disney–Jerry Bruckheimer–Johnny Depp Pirates picture, ­Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, is not merely bad. It buries the memory of the days when movies seemed fresh and innocent, when you could be swept along by a story without terms like “franchise” and “tent-pole” and box-office grosses and the Tomato-meter and the likelihood of sequels and spinoffs crowding the characters out of your head. I’ve never seen a film in which what was actually onscreen seemed so irrelevant.

The film—which jettisons Keira Knightley and the guy who was so bland I can’t even remember his name … Oliver … Orson … Orlando Bloom!—revolves around a lot of people trying to find the Fountain of Youth. But you don’t know where in this scavenger hunt the various antagonists are in relation to one another, geographically, so there’s no suspense, and nothing seems to come of the myriad sword fights. Yes, it’s more streamlined than the third Pirates picture, which seemed to go on for days, but the new director, Rob Marshall, doesn’t have his predecessor Gore Verbinski’s dash. Every swashbuckling set piece is several beats too long, so that you’re always ahead of the action, impatient for the punch line.

Depp has milked Captain Jack Sparrow dry. He totters into the frame and does his tipsy effeminate shtick, then stands aside for his stunt double. (In one scene, he ­duels with a Sparrow impersonator, but since it’s two doubles you can’t tell which is supposed to be which.) With all Depp’s much-vaunted integrity, isn’t he ashamed? At the very least, isn’t he bored out of his skull? Penélope Cruz shows up for the paycheck as another of Sparrow’s jilted lovers, and she must have gone crazy trying to make sense of the part, since her motives change from scene to scene. Every­one keeps double-crossing everyone else, which results in a pirate movie with no emotional—or even melodramatic—clarity. At least Ian McShane as Blackbeard is an unambiguous psychopath. McShane can always be counted on to bring a whiff of brimstone.

On Stranger Tides does have one entertaining addition: a bevy of mermaids who look like friendly, emaciated supermodels and then sprout fangs and rip people apart like the shark in Jaws. (A nice touch: One horny pirate thinks dis­embowelment is a fair trade for a fondle.) But even the mermaid scenes go on too long. The Pirates movies are meant to be big-­budget wallows, but wasn’t there some Disney executive with attention-deficit disorder around to say, “Guys, pick up the pace!”? Where are the philistines when you need them?

The Tree of Life
Directed by Terrence Malick.
Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Rated PG-13.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
Directed by Rob Marshall.
Walt Disney Pictures.
Rated PG-13.