The seafaring adventure Master and Commander: The Far Side of the Worldhas few 30-foot waves going for it, and very little else that would excite anyone but geeky 12-year-old boys who like to make sailing ships out of matchsticks. The movie, adapted from the popular historical novels by Patrick O'Brian and directed by Peter Weir, is bookended by two hard-working but listless sea battles. In between it plays—astonishingly, for an accredited shock jock like Weir—like an earnest National Geographic mockup striving to give us the flavor of periods and places past. Weir has been known to go high-minded (Dead Poets Society) or silly (Green Card) on us, but it is hard to recognize the inflamed imagination behind Picnic at Hanging Rock, Gallipoli or even The Truman Show in this tame early-19th-century buddy movie.
Russell Crowe and British actor Paul Bettany star as intrepid sea captain Jack Aubrey and his brainy ship's doctor, Stephen Maturin, who are charged with bringing honor—though not quite as much honor as the captain craves—to England by taking out one of Napoleon's men-of-war, which has all but sunk the good ship Surprise early on in the movie. Crowe and Bettany were heaps more fun as a psychotic mathematician and his fantasy toy-boy in A Beautiful Mind than they are as this pair of old biddies. Nag-nagging one another to follow the ethics of their respective callings while playing tasteful duets on string instruments, the two guffaw their way through dinner parties in the officers' mess, where Aubrey delights his adoring inferiors by dropping terrible puns and, wherever humanly possible, dropping the name of his former boss, Lord Nelson. Though by most reliable accounts, O'Brian's novels are elegantly written, Weir's screenplay, co-written with John Collee, is excruciatingly flowery, and Crowe—chubby, seedy and unaccountably blond—chugs along, bending his Aussie twang into the twitterings of a ranking toff who brags without shame, "With Nelson, you felt your heart glow."
From time to time a storm rolls in or the ship is attacked again, leaving Aubrey to demonstrate leadership qualities by ordering extra rum rations for his men or scratching his head over whether to save a man overboard. The mechanics of shipboard life are lovingly elaborated, but for an adventure tale there's little enough action, unless you count copious scenes of hacksaw surgery that suggest an uncommon fondness in the director for amputation. For the rest, Master and Commander takes us on a sedate world tour through ice and rain and tropical heat, finishing up at the Galapagos Islands, where the good doctor, an amateur naturalist, chases cormorants, iguanas and beetles, and debates creationism versus evolutionary theory with a plucky little blue-blooded apprentice (Max Pirkis). One half expects David Attenborough to drop in with some helpful info about the copulatory habits of the giant Galapagos turtle.
It's clear that Weir and his extensive crew had scads of fun making their toys sail the stormy seas, and I'd love to be able to say that Master and Commander will fail only because it is a good old-fashioned action-adventure with no whiz-bang special effects. In truth it will fail because it is a dull and boring film, pretty as a Turner landscape and as sweetly becalmed as the glassy Sargasso Sea in which the men of the unfortunately named Surprise find themselves trapped for what felt, to me at least, like weeks on end.
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Master and Commander: The Far Side Of The World was directed by Peter Weir; written by Weir and John Collee, based on the "Aubrey/Maturin" novels by Patrick O'Brian; produced by Samuel Goldwyn Jr., Weir and Duncan Henderson; and stars Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany. Now playing countywide.