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Humor Misses the Boat

MOVIE REVIEW
Pirate Radio (2009)

20657
Alex Bailey/Focus Features

A box office bomb in Britain, “The Boat That Rocked” has been re-titled, re-edited and handed off to Focus Features for its American release. The move is unlikely to help matters. Now known as “Pirate Radio,” Richard Curtis’s tribute to the illegal radio stations that broadcast rock music to Britain in the 1960s functions as no more than a halfhearted collection of scenarios and characters that’d be more at home in a sitcom.

The picture borrows the ensemble approach Mr. Curtis perfected in “Love Actually,” his directorial debut, but lacks the broad, deeper unifying spirit that enhanced it. Rife with the sense of deep, meaningful love being an attainable prospect for even the loneliest and most cynical among us, the prior film successfully shaped multiple plot threads into a coherent, affecting whole.

Despite the presence of such big-time talent as Philip Seymour Hoffman, Kenneth Branagh and Bill Nighy, “Pirate Radio” demonstrates lazy disregard for its narrative’s broader significance. It offers little beyond some seafaring, free-love buffoonery interspersed with the stringent and tightly wound world of the bureaucrat (Mr. Branagh) bent on shutting the featured radio station down. It pays mere lip service — in the form of incessant montages of regular folks hanging on to every word of the broadcasts — to the real story: the ways the pirate radios helped usher in a very different cultural world.

Instead, the film tries to get by on the strength of its various sexual peccadilloes, the friendly and contentious interactions between the assembled personalities and what it believes to be the inherent thrill of D.J.s flouting laws to rock. Set largely on Radio Rock’s creaky, faded red boat, the picture features Mr. Hoffman, Mr. Nighy, Rhys Ifans and Nick Frost playing some of the most prominent figures in the organization, who live as a fun-loving collective and broadcast the music of Jimmy Hendrix, The Who and many others around the clock.

That character-driven focus gets applied to such halfheartedly plotted scenarios as rival D.J.s playing a game of chicken and co-workers sleeping with co-workers’ women. The operating message: Life at Radio Rock was an unending barrel of joyful, free-loving laughs, with occasional smidgens of heartache and pain thrown in for good measure. All culminates in a completely pointless never-ending climax that more befits a 1970s disaster movie than a film with an ostensibly significant story to tell.

Were the various figures not played by recognizable actors, they’d likely have blended into an indistinguishable velvet clad flamboyant mass. Mr. Curtis fails his cast by never defining the characters with more than single-trait clichés. Mr. Hoffman’s is a slovenly, less accomplished version of the Lester Bangs of “Almost Famous,” Mr. Ifans’s the slick, mysterious womanizer and Mr. Branagh’s the profoundly cranky government employee. That there’s no refining or complicating done to these and other archetypes only reinforces the notion that the filmmaker took the notion of making the film into a lighthearted comedy far too literally.

Mr. Branagh, rolling his Rs and speaking with a comically concentrated aristocratic gait (picture Harvey Korman in a Mel Brooks movie) is the only person who seems to fully buy into the intended lowbrow satirical feel. Otherwise, the actors reflect the filmmaking, radiating boredom at every turn. Colorful period production design in search of a purpose, “Pirate Radio” reduces a transformative historical moment to a slight, silly variation on “The Love Boat.”

PIRATE RADIO

Opens on Nov. 13 in the United States.

Written and directed by Richard Curtis; director of photography, Danny Cohen; edited by Emma E. Hickox; production designer, Mark Tildesley; produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Hilary Bevan Jones; released by Focus Features. Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes. This film is rated R.

WITH: Philip Seymour Hoffman (the Count), Bill Nighy (Quentin), Rhys Ifans (Gavin), Nick Frost (Dave), Kenneth Branagh (Sir Alistair Dormandy), Tom Sturridge (Carl), Rhys Darby (Angus), Talulah Riley (Marianne), January Jones (Elenore) , Katherine Parkinson (Felicity) and Emma Thompson (Charlotte).

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