Curtis's 'Pirate Radio' Doesn't Rock the Boat

Photo: <b>Love boat.</b> Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rhys Ifans and Emma Thompson are featured in director Richard Curtis's latest movie 'Pirate Radio.'
Alex Bailey/Courtesy
Love boat. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rhys Ifans and Emma Thompson are featured in director Richard Curtis's latest movie 'Pirate Radio.'

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The film "Pirate Radio" is not going to change your life anymore than rock 'n' roll actually saved the world. But if you had no idea what has happened in history since 1967-the year in which the film ends-that's what you might be inclined to believe when the credits start to roll. Director Richard Curtis has again taken on the task of cracking that British "stiff upper lip" stereotype.

In "Love Actually" (2003), Curtis showed the softer side of his compatriots, with an incredible ensemble cast and an aura of Christmas cheer to uplift audiences with delightful idealism. For his latest enterprise, the director writes an open love letter to the music that rocked the world within an equally appealing epoch: 1966, the year that the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Who (all British exports) were at their peak but without even one hour of radio-play in their homeland.

"Pirate Radio" is a hopelessly romantic portrayal of a radio-station crew that operated from a large ship just outside of British jurisdiction in the North Sea. Under the guidance of the charming but sort of creepy uncle figure, Quentin, aka the Captain (Bill Nighy), a slew of disc-jockeys dedicate themselves to the music and partying that their little boy imaginations could never have conceived before rock 'n' roll made it possible. They have sex, they do drugs and they great play music; they bond, they love and they hold fast to their belief in the democracy of the airwaves.

Once again, Curtis manages to bring together a phenomenal ensemble cast, but the characters themselves are relatively shallow and underdeveloped. The audience gets at least one tangible storyline via innocent Carl (Tom Sturridge), Quentin's godson sent aboard the ship by his aristocratic but subtlety rebellious mother (Emma Thompson). Predictably, he's eager to trade his sheltered boarding-school persona for a place among the motley crew.

With so many mariners aboard, individual nuances and depth are sacrificed for a the semblance of a diverse whole. There's quiet and sexy Midnight Mark (Tom Wisdom), overweight and overly laid Dave (Nick Frost), nutty New Zealander Angus (Rhys Darby), and "the lesbian who can cook" Felicity (Katherine Parkinson). Of course, there are a few cliche attempts at variety: The dimwitted Thick Kevin (Tom Brooke) has some insights! Disillusioned and reclusive Bob (Ralph Brown) was a ladies man before he went too far into drugs! Naive Simon (Chris O'Dowd) might actually find "the one" in an era of free love!

Inevitably, there's a clash of the egos when Mick Jagger wannabe and "king of the airwaves" Gavin (Rhys Ifans) reappears on the ship and eclipses the popularity of the American shock-jock "The Count" (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who takes his demotion to heart. He challenges his rival to a regrettable game of chicken in the name of morality, then suffers the physical consequences. In the most offensively predictable moments of the movie, they reconcile when both the death of the station and the end of their lives seem imminent.

While the gang carries out their chaos aboard the ship, heartless government minister Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh) makes it his personal mission to shut down the indecent and amoral transmissions assaulting the British way of life. The unimpressive war between the "good" youthful rebels and the one "evil" conservative trying to ruin everyone's fun does nothing more than further the plot. The underling named Twatt (Jack Davenport) employed to helm the battle offers an easy but enjoyable laugh throughout-surprisingly, the emphatically approving remarks "Well done, Twatt" don't ever get old.

Unfortunately, with an actor of Branagh's caliber, it's almost unbearable to spend so much time watching a character devoid of even a hint of humanity. Whether that's the fault of a lackluster performance or bad writing is hard to say, but it's impossible to overlook in comparison to Thompson's compelling cameo. With over two-thirds of her face concealed by enormous sunglasses and an over-sized coat collar, she still conveys an emotional complexity unmatched by anyone in the cast.

The film is nothing revolutionary and the story is far from unique. But to Curtis's credit, he's not claiming his ambitious movie is anything but an homage to the music near and dear to his heart. Overall, the ensemble cast is great, the costumes are impeccable and the soundtrack is phenomenal. Like all other Richard Curtis projects, there's tenderness, heart and soul. Despite its weaknesses, "Pirate Radio" will inevitably spark some sentimental appreciation for the pioneering efforts that made rock 'n' roll available to the masses.

Rock Jennafer's world at [email protected]

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