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Gleiberman on ''Pirates''' muddled waters

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Gleiberman on ”Pirates”’ muddled waters

In case you’re wondering how closely the writers at Entertainment Weekly follow what’s posted on our message boards, have no fear, we read and absorb it all, even when it hurts. In the case of my review of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, I have listened to the haters, the fans, the complaints about cranky critics who automatically resent and skewer any movie that’s a blockbuster (gee, what an accurate summation of my track record!) — but, most of all, I have followed, with mounting fascination, a furious ongoing debate among devotees of the series over the Plot Confusion Factor.

Assuming that our readers can serve as a healthy statistical sample, I’d sum it up like this: Half of the folks who went to see the latest Pirates movie think that it’s a mess — illogical and overstuffed, a knotted-up ball of narrative twine you have to untangle, in vain, as you watch it. The other half of you are adamant, to the point of righteousness, about how utterly logical and easy to follow At World’s End is, assuming that you have a brain. (Or, to put in message-board speak: If only you had a brain, idiot!)

But wait a minute. People can disagree on whether a movie is good or not, but shouldn’t it be a matter of more…objectivity whether what’s happening on screen actually make sense? (I’ve seen plenty of bad films in which the stories add up just fine.) Either the plot hangs together or it doesn’t, right? As someone who is squarely in the Pirates-is-a-mess camp, I’m intrigued by what this division in the ranks reveals: about what ”following” a story now means, and about how that reflects what viewers want (or don’t want) from movies today. Here are a few thoughts:

First, let’s get a bit more detailed about what those, like me, who think that At World’s End is muddled and confusing are really talking about. Yes, there are things in the film that flat-out make no sense. Like, for instance, why is Jack Sparrow, in the final storm-tossed battle, engaged in a furious 15-minute sword fight with Davy Jones if Davy Jones can’t even be killed (or, at least, not in that way)?

Yet that’s almost beside the point. The real problem with At World’s End is that it’s a massive collection of loose ends — plot points that are introduced and not quite followed through, so that we’re asked to twist our attention in a certain direction, only to be caught, time and again, staring into space (though there’s plenty of visual hoohah to fill the void). When Lord Cutler Beckett, the scoundrel of the East India Trading Company, extracts a promise from Jack Sparrow to betray his comrades, the betrayal, initially, makes sense — Jack, a bit of a scoundrel himself, wants to get back to a merry pirate’s life of sailing and boozing, without all of these damned obligations. But for all the focus and gravitas that’s placed upon this moment of ”intrigue,” it pays off…not at all. It’s a red herring. Jack never does much to tilt the action Beckett’s way, and he is never really forced into confrontation with his friends. The whole backroom-scam subplot doesn’t develop and surge — it just evaporates. Which is subtly depressing. It’s as if the film were promising the audience a soupçon of human complication, then turning around and betraying us. (Hey, you were actually invested in that situation? Too bad!)

NEXT PAGE: ”What’s really muddled in At World’s End isn’t logic, per se, but any semblance of a human dramatic experience.”

Or take the heavily weighted scene, early on, in which the movie fills us in about the lost romance that helped make Davy Jones into the monster he is. It turns out that he was loved, then abandoned, by Tia Dalma, the mumbo-jumbo-talking voodoo priestess. (What these two ever did on a date I can’t imagine, but that’s another story.) At World’s End wouldn’t be the first movie to take a seething villain and complicate our feelings about him by giving him a sympathetic back story. Just look at The Phantom of the Opera, or at how the revelation about Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back changes our relationship to him. But in Pirates, nothing changes: I kept waiting for the Davy Jones/Tia Dalma plot to come to fruition, but instead, it’s just another stray piece of information, made irrelevant the moment that Tia Dalma expands, like the dough boy at the end of Ghostbusters, into the Goddess of the Sea, a special effect that seems to exist for no other reason than to make us go ”Wow!” At which point we can move on to the next fractured/unresolved/half-baked plot point. You could argue that all of this, in some literal way, ”makes sense,” but my argument is that very little of it makes sense emotionally. What’s really muddled in At World’s End isn’t logic, per se, but any semblance of a human dramatic experience.

But ay, there’s the rub — or, at least, where the twain of the debate shall meet. Reading the posts by those of you who find Pirates perfectly easy and straightforward to follow, one picks up on a certain videogame-era vanity: The plot makes perfect sense! Just use your head! Is it anyone’s fault but your own that you can’t get with the movie’s program?

If I can translate their ire, what I think these folks are saying isn’t that they can actually piece together every last lurching, half-dangled plot fragment. They’re saying that what doesn’t quite parse in Pirates doesn’t quite matter to them. In so many ways, At World’s End is a quintessential contempo blockbuster, a movie that works by throwing stuff at you, and logic be damned. The lack of logic is the movie’s logic. That’s what makes it a ride, a candy storm for the eyes and the gut, an experience beyond the creaky confines of a neat, sensible, crisply organized, three-act narrative. The two halves of this argument may be yelling at each other, but in another sense they’re really saying the same thing. It’s just that some of us want even a pirate adventure movie to add up in a certain way — not just on the connect-the-dots level of a comic-book flowchart, but as a genuine dramatic journey, a roller-coaster for the heart. For others, that very goal may now be passé.

What do you think? Does ”Pirates 3” play it too fast and loose with its plot points? Does it matter to you? Post your comments on the message board below.

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