Shiver Me Timbers! Dapper Depp Turns Swishy Swashbuckler

Gore Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl , from a screenplay by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, is purportedly based on a culturally dubious source, namely the Disneyworld theme-park ride Pirates of the Caribbean. The operative words to describe the proceedings are “stylishly exuberant” if you like the movie, and “tediously facetious” if you don’t. My own reaction is somewhere in between. On the plus side are the zestfully colorful performances by Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow, a pirate captain who’s lost his ship, the Black Pearl , and Geoffrey Rush as Barbossa, the leader of the mutineers, whose motley crew has become the scourge of the Caribbean. From that point on, a self-defeating plot premise kicks in, in which a curse put on the mutineers renders them living-dead creatures unable to savor earthly delights. But this also makes them completely invincible to the violent assaults from the British soldiers and sailors sent to deliver these ghostly pirates to the hangman.

It hardly seems fair that one side never loses to the other, and yet the extended swordfights rage for more than two hours. There is a final solution of sorts to this quixotic quandary, and it all has to do with an accursed gold medallion that passes from hand to hand, and throat to throat, until the curse is removed just in time for the pirates to get their comeuppance. All except for Mr. Depp’s Jack Sparrow, who leads the kind of charmed life reminiscent of Gene Kelly’s mountebank in Vincente Minnelli’s The Pirate (1948). (In Mr. Depp’s case, however, without the songs and the endless quest for women.)

In fact, Pirates reminds me of a vintage MGM musical, a movie that is more choreographed than directed, and one that serves up good clean fun of the PG-13 variety. It even manages to stay “wholesome” despite the perpetually heaving bosom of the frequently menaced damsel in distress, Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightly), daughter of colonial governor Weatherby Swann (Jonathan Pryce).

But even so, the Walt Disney Company has broken precedent, according to Variety ‘s Todd McCarthy, by draping the “Walt Disney Presents” banner over something much racier than a straight G-rated spectacle prescribed for the tiniest tots. That Ms. Knightly’s Elizabeth is never in any danger of being ravished is a given in this mini-genre, which includes such sexlessly beaming ruffians as Captain Hook in Peter Pan and Long John Silver in Treasure Island .

Mr. Depp has been hailed by critics for his hitherto infallible instincts for avoiding any project that has threatened to become a blockbuster, and for infusing potentially flamboyant roles with an arrestingly underplayed gentleness, calmness and almost mystical sincerity. He was completely overshadowed by Leonardo DiCaprio in Lasse Hallström’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), but the more perceptive critics noted that it was Mr. Depp who kept this fragile fractured-family story from flying apart. Mr. DiCaprio, as we all know, made the mistake of going on to become a titanic star with nowhere to go but down as he got older.

Yet now that Mr. Depp is turning 40, some of his erstwhile admirers have suggested that it’s time for him to look after his old age with a franchise series of his own. I am a notoriously unreliable prophet in these matters, but I doubt that Jack Sparrow has that kind of staying power, either commercially or mythologically, especially since Mr. Depp plays him as too much of a peacock of indeterminate sexuality. Indeed, it’s Mr. Depp who seems to be giving the flashy DiCaprio performance here, and Mr. Rush who provides the funnier and more subtle performance usually associated with Mr. Depp. And amid all the feverish Depp-worship, the indispensable contribution of Orlando Bloom as Will Turner, the romantic blacksmith-swordsman who wins Elizabeth’s heart after saving her skin, has been much underrated. Yet is it not the guy who gets the girl, or loves her à la folie , who lies at the heart of any popular film franchise? Now that Sparrow has regained his ship at the final fadeout, what will he do for an encore? Rape and pillage and plunder with a jaunty step? Or decide that the drunken pass he made at Elizabeth on a deserted island was the real thing after all? I can’t imagine.

The most original stroke in the Pirates story is provided by Jack Davenport’s Commander Norrington, who, after losing Elizabeth to Will Turner and watching Jack Sparrow elude his grasp, reacts with surprising grace and gallantry. Up to that point, Norrington has been presented as a stiff, pompous figure of authority, completely lacking in imagination. But in the end, he exhibits both generosity and humor in resigning himself to his fate. He turns out to be the one real mensch in the film.

Two Men and a Stuffed Rabbit

Matteo Garrone’s The Embalmer , written by Ugo Chiti, Mr. Garrone and Massimo Gaudioso, brilliantly creates an atmosphere of malignant malaise and foreboding in a small, nondescript Italian town outside Naples in which three troubled members of a deviously constructed sexual triangle carry their unruly passions forward to a climax of tabloid tragedy. Peppino (Ernesto Mahieux) is a 30-year-old closeted gay taxidermist who, on a visit to the zoo, becomes immediately infatuated with Valerio (Valerio Foglia Manzillo), a strikingly tall, good-looking twentysomething waiter with a friendly attitude toward people and a fondness for animals. After a brief conversation, Peppino offers Valerio a job as his assistant at twice the salary he receives as a waiter. We learn later that Peppino cannot really afford this largesse, since he receives only a meager income from stuffing animals and deals with the local Mafia to supplement his income-inserting heroin packets in corpses scheduled for burial.

Aware that Valerio is encumbered with a girlfriend and her child, Peppino dares not make direct advances to the young man, but proposes instead that they engage in double-date orgies with prostitutes that Peppino hires for the occasion. Any incidental homoerotic contact between Peppino and Valerio can be explained away as part of the “fun.” Mr. Garrone has been criticized by some reviewers for not being more explicit about what occurs between the two men, particularly on one occasion when Peppino “tricks” Valerio by sending him on an errand so he can dismiss the prostitutes. Then, pretending they’ll be back any minute, he partially undresses and caresses Valerio as the sleepy, drunken young man waits patiently for the prostitutes to return. Cut.

Later, Valerio insists-or pretends-that nothing happened to change his relationship with his employer. I think Mr. Garrone made the right decision in not being more explicit in the sex scenes. The whole point of the relationship between the two men is that Peppino is fearful of driving Valerio away if he expresses his true feelings, and Valerio likes to have his cake and eat it, too, by accepting the comparatively high life that Peppino offers without compromising his own ostensibly “normal” sexual orientation.

The people around them are under no illusions about what Peppino wants with a handsome young “assistant” whom he cannot really afford. Valerio’s original girlfriend recognizes what Peppino is up to at the outset and quickly abandons him. But when Valerio encounters the obsessively possessive Deborah (Elisabetta Rocchetti) on one of his “pleasure trips” with the more cosmopolitan Peppino, she quickly seduces the impressionable and none-too-bright Valerio, after which she doggedly refuses to leave the field to Peppino. Yet even when angrily asked to choose between Deborah and Peppino, the opportunistic Valerio tries to have it both ways. Indeed, he becomes like a bone that’s being fought over by two rabid dogs. There seems no way out of this fierce struggle except in the most horrific way, and after one final spasm of melodramatic rage and violence, the situation is finally resolved.

Mr. Mahieux’s performance as Peppino has been justifiably honored in Italy and elsewhere for its imaginative range and bitter humor. Yet the film is one of the most ominously depressing I have seen in a long time, largely because Mr. Garrone and his incisive cinematographer, Marco Onorato-along with his inventive production designer, Paolo Bonfini-have managed to implicate every landscape, seascape and townscape in the gruesome process of unnatural selection taking place all around the characters. It is no surprise that Mr. Garrone has spent part of his life as a serious painter. The Embalmer is one of the most knowingly painterly films I have ever seen, and yet Mr. Garrone’s mobile canvas is never placed in the service of the merely picturesque. If anything, the external world that the film projects is every bit as neurotic as its three tortured protagonists. This is the antithesis of a tourist’s sunny Italy. It is, instead, a backwater for fringe characters on the edge of mediocrity and middle-class scandal.

Elle Woods for President

Charles Herman-Wurmfeld’s Legally Blonde 2: Red White and Blonde , from a screenplay by Kate Kondell and a story by Eve Ahlert, Dennis Drake and Ms. Kendal, and based on characters created by Amanda Brown-presumably in Robert Luketic’s Legally Blonde (2001)-may be the worst film I have ever seen with an actress I have previously adored: in this case, Reese Witherspoon, whom I first saw as a budding teenager in Robert Mulligan’s deeply felt and lyrically articulated The Man in the Moon (1991).

Take the plot- purleese . Ms. Witherspoon’s Elle Woods has emerged from her triumphs at Harvard Law and in Boston courtrooms to take on the U.S. Congress over the burning issue of a major cosmetics corporation’s cruelty to Chihuahuas-particularly one Chihuahua, who turns out to be the parent of Elle’s own pet. (Needless to say, I kid you not.) Elle finds a Washington beachhead in the office of Congresswoman Victoria Rudd (Sally Field), who seems to be on her side at first, but eventually betrays her to further the chances of a bill she considers more important.

If you think this bit of treachery will deter or even discourage Elle from her predetermined triumph, then you can’t appreciate how much power Ms. Witherspoon has come to wield from the spectacular grosses of her recent pictures, or how silly she has turned out to be in making Elle so completely invulnerable to all the slings and arrows afflicting most of the rest of us. The best and funniest scene in the first Legally Blonde occurred when Elle is ditched by her pompous boyfriend, who tells her that he has decided to marry a Jackie O. rather than a Marilyn Monroe type-referring, of course, both to John F. Kennedy’s wife and one of his reputed conquests. After comically hanging onto her beau’s every word, Elle switches into battle mode and never lets up, even after she subsequently suffers a few pratfalls. She gets even in the end, of course, but she has displayed enough grace under pressure to deserve all her good fortune.

In Legally Blonde 2 , she turns everyone in Washington into a stooge for her pink whirlwind maneuvers, breathtakingly patterned after James Stewart’s filibustering heroics in Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). In contrast to Mr. Smith, however, Elle never breaks a sweat as she turns her equally silly sorority sisters (with members of all ages and parties) into a massive political force that would make Karl Rove drool with envy. Feel-good feminism has a lot to answer for, first with Charlie’s Angels and now with Legally Blonde 2 .