The rock-'n'-roll '60s were such a beloved era in both the U.S. and the U.K., any filmmaker on either side of the pond would clamor to take on a picture like Richard Curtis' Pirate Radio—released in Britain under the slightly worse title The Boat That Rocked. Under the right circumstances, a film about a band of brazen DJs anchored in the North Sea outside U.K. jurisdiction has all the makings of a hit. Unfortunately, Curtis avoids all elements that have made previous ventures into the '60s successful (Mad Men currently sets the standard), reducing Pirate Radio to an indulgence in cliché and caricature, with only a playlist of golden oldies to back it up.
Curtis, the writer-director of such movies as Love, Actually and Four Weddings and a Funeral (both at worst harmless, at best actually charming), is out of his element removed from pure romantic comedy. He ditches main man Hugh Grant for young, quiet (read: boring) Tom Sturridge, who joins Bill Nighy, Philip Seymour Hoffman and a cast of a dozen other rogue DJs with Johnny One-Note personalities on the boat of rock. The first half of the film is a hormonal jaunt around the cabin, laced with a soundtrack of songs from the Stones to the Who. The music is good, but the film relies entirely on Songs That Everyone Loves. Curtis cranks the Kinks' "All Day and All of the Night" to shots of listening teen girls screaming—as if he expects a similar reaction from an audience that's heard these songs on FM radio for 40 years. For the next 75 minutes, the film clobbers everyone over the head with the theme that drives the entire movie: Rock 'n' roll is cool, and the stuffy Brits (specifically Kenneth Branagh's puritanical administrator) don't get it. Hoffman and Nighy do what they can but come across as aging hippies, not music lovers at the forefront of a cultural movement—or aging beatniks, as would be more appropriate for 1966.
About an hour through the film, plot threads from Mamma Mia! and Titanic only confuse its intent. Cameos by Emma Thompson and January Jones don't help; they only create more wonder about why such talented people signed on to a shipwreck. Curtis lays it all—the music, the male camaraderie, the sex jokes—on so thick the camp dies quickly and eventually even the eye-rolling becomes tiring. Pirate Radio sinks from the beginning, substituting caricature for character and forfeiting plot to celebrate rock-'n'-roll chestnuts. All they had to do was release the soundtrack. R.
opens Friday Cedar Hills, Eastport, City Center and Fox Tower.