Forget the electric car, here's another question: Who killed the breezy blockbuster? Summer movies have always been committee-approved and bionically-engineered for market consumption, but weren't they at one point slender entertainments made to dissolve pleasurably in the minds of theatergoers seeking air-conditioning? Not when every new studio behemoth is sweating to outdo the previous week's top grosser at the box-office -- bloating is the main symptom of this bellicose anxiety, evident in the puffed-up running times of the clunky mega-budget vessels docking in theaters. That Superman Returns ran 154 minutes was sufficient proof of how viewers today can't tell "epic" from "swollen," and now comes Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, similarly David Leaned to 150 minutes yet feeling about four times longer than the Man of Steel saga. The comic-book stuff is once more left to Johnny Depp, back aboard as buccaneering scalawag Jack Sparrow, even more than before a rascally actor's self-amusing private gig; the juvenile couple, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley, have their wedding rudely interrupted by the steamrolling plot, which demands all hands on deck for explosions, cyclonic tumult, unendurable slapstick, squishy CGI, everything given the super-size-me treatment of a sequel. Worse: a trilogy (!!) has been forged out of the original's popularity, so more horrors are on the way.
What was throwaway junk in 2003 has become mythical junk -- Jerry Bruckheimer lusts for his own Lord of the Rings, and plunks his pedestrian hack, Gore Verbinski, at the ship's wheel for a regressive pop voyage. Bloom and Knightley are arrested by the colonial East Indies Trading Company (the ominous proto-corporate thing was done better in The Legend of Zorro), Bloom is promised a pardon if he locates Depp's unruly compass, which has magic powers; Depp, meanwhile, is searching for another kind of booty, the chest containing the heart of his undead nemesis, Davy Jones (Bill Nighy). There also are detours for cannibal islands, voodoo swamps, and galleon-swallowing krakens, the noise amplified along with the unexplored sexual wackiness -- Depp's pansexual vaudeville is both swishier and more neutered, scrawny Bloom's shirt gets ripped for a paternal flogging, and Knightley dons cabin-boy drag to weirdly indifferent effect. Genuine pleasures are sparse amid the leaden antics, Nighy rasping "I am the sea" through a beard of squiggly tentacles, the shambling crew of the Flying Dutchman done up like Lucio Fulci zombies, Depp peeking into an empty bottle to wonder why the rum is gone. For the most part, Dead Man's Chest is an infernal sample of the kind of sensory bombardment that replicates less a Disney theme-park ride than an extended stay at a Guantánamo base cell.
A period piece would appear soothing after the furious idiocy of Pirates, but Patrice Chéreau allows for no placidity in Gabrielle, a work of stunning intensity underneath its opulent fabrics. The text is Joseph Conrad's The Return, transplanted from turn-of-the-century London to Paris, aristocratic publisher Jean (Pascal Greggory) first spotted leaving the steamy train in an introduction oddly reminiscent of Ralph Fiennes' in Spider. Chéreau's narrative is no less subjective than Cronenberg's and, likewise, order is unraveled from the start -- the lavish social gatherings Jean and wife Gabrielle (Isabelle Huppert) attend are Merchant-Ivory tea parties with the cobwebs blown out, the movie's dizzying opening movement hinting at storms kept corseted for the sake of appearances, the most kinetic desiccation of frocked haute society since Scorsese's The Age of Innocence. Guests prattle, a matron drops a sardonic bon mot, then a fade to black to usher in the day that implodes the foundations: Jean arrives at the office to find a letter from Gabrielle, written as she ditches him for her lover. The words, "absurd and distracting," are flashed on the screen, color switches to black-and-white and back, and rigidity of stability takes a hammer blow; Jean goes home, shaken yet still hanging on to the chilly façade of bourgeoisie, and finds Gabrielle impulsively back. Recomposing his bearing, he demands everything be forgotten and dinner to go on; Gabrielle can't control her laughter, he douses her with water, emotional war is declared.
Conrad's story is basically a single-character piece, Chéreau's film is a Bergmanesque duet, played out for in a mansion lifeless enough to house sarcophaguses. Indeed, the film charts a reverse-mummification: Son Frère followed the pain of life seeping out of a loved one, Gabrielle charts the shock of life pumped into a corpse. Jean slowly wakes to the hollowness of his pretensions, Gabrielle to the force she's kept buried for years; the couple attends another party, yet they cannot keep from savagely stabbing each other's tender spots -- how can the mask of tidy appearances be forced back on when beneath it the flesh quivers and aches? Chéreau's widescreen compositions are often painterly, but what's most startling is the film's sense of physicality wrenched from the genteel setting, the way space seems to brutally hang in the air during the dinner scene between the characters, or Jean ludicrously mounting Gabrielle, like Mastroianni and Moreau at the conclusion of La Notte, after she's told him how his sperm repulses her. The characters are china figurines suddenly turned emotional combatants, and Greggory and Huppert are lacerating sharpshooters, hitting exceptional notes of dread, disgust, cruelty, regret. Marriage is leveled by newfound passion, yet life's been injected into a decaying system: Gabrielle realizes not just Conrad but also Norman O. Brown, both by Chéreau's side in existential spirit to welcome the enlivening apocalypse.
Squirrelly under globs of makeup, fright wig, and cellulite-enhancing pants, Amy Sedaris in Strangers With Candy makes Depp's Pirates scampering look like Bressonian modeling -- if the sublime-ridiculous comedienne hadn't already developed her Jerri Blank character (a "boozer, user, and two-time loser," in her late 40s and dropped in high school) back in 1999 for her short-lived Comedy Central sitcom, she could have been credited with the best send-up of attractive actresses uglying up for Oscar season. After-school specials (or Todd Solondz hellholes, perhaps) are the main target here, with an upcoming science-fair project lending the slim clothesline on which Sedaris and the rest of the returning cast (Stephen Colbert and Paul Dinello, teachers and illicit lovers, plus Greg Hollimon's sonorous principal Blackman) pin their inappropriate gags. Pinello directed as well, quite lamely, yet the tone of heightened crassness is sustained a la Mel Brooks, with Matthew Broderick around for the Producers connection; the running of the bulls is staged in a gym, Dan Hedaya is Jerri's comatose daddy, "Jesus satisfies" is imprinted on table stickers. Jerri may be a freshman here, but Sedaris, grotesque and fearless, is already lowbrow homecoming queen.
Reviewed July 13, 2006.