Boat and Switch
Two months ago, my wife and I sat down to watch Pirate Radio. It was late, we were tired, and only made it through the first twenty-five minutes. The plan was to finish it the next day, but we were so underwhelmed by the movie's first quarter that it sat in our DVD player until last Sunday evening. When I suggested we start over, I got one of those special dirty looks normally reserved for one of my really inappropriate jokes--so we picked up precisely where we left off.
Thank God for dirty looks.
Set in mid-60s Britain, the movie tells the story of Carl (Tom Sturridge), a teenager who's sent to live with his godfather, Quentin (Bill Nighy) after getting kicked out of school. Fortunately for Carl, Quentin lives and works on a large boat that illegally broadcasts 24-hour rock and roll to the UK. The crew is comprised mostly of middle-aged partiers and wacky DJs who drink, smoke and fuck everything in sight. Meanwhile, in London, a stuffed shirt named Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh) schemes to shut the station down, and brings in a lackey named Twatt (Jack Davenport) to help him find a legal course of action.
This is a great premise for a movie, and hopefully we'll get one someday. For now, we're stuck with Richard Curtis's dreadful 2-hour mess. The coherent portion of the story would take ten minutes to tell: government orders station to shut down; station gives finger to "The Man"; boat sinks due to technical malfunction; DJs are rescued by fans. But because Curtis is known for writing and directing features, he has to pad out the run-time; instead of providing some historical/social context or delving into the lives of what are, I assume, supposed to be wild and interesting characters, he turns his film into a series of Benny Hill skits intercut with Dormandy and Twatt scrunching up their faces at all that crazy, loud Devil music.
I understand that this is a comedy, and not meant as an educational think-piece, but when I watch a movie featuring almost every mainstream British actor of the last decade, I expect them to have signed on because their characters actually have something to do or say. Instead, I get scenes like the rejected Three's Company sketch in which Carl makes a deal with chubby lothario Doctor Dave (Nick Frost) to switch places so that the girl Dave has lured into his pitch black room will unwittingly take Carl's virginity. "Date rape" doesn't seem like the right phrase, but "hilarious comedy" doesn't feel right, either.
There's also a wedding on-deck, with knee-slapping on-air narration; a pissing contest between crazy ex-pat The Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his rival DJ Gavin Cavanagh (Rhys Ifans), in which both men climb to the highest point on the boat and then jump into the ocean; and a ton of other scenes that I've forgotten already--none of them funny, or at all serviceable to the plot. The closest we get to a consistent "B" story is Carl's quest to find his dad, who he believes to be one of the kooks on the boat. He figures things out, but his old man's so far gone that their relationship never evolves past that of silly, casual roommates; neither person seems to care that much (it's hard to tell much about Carl in the way of feelings, as his face is perpetually locked in a smoulder that suggests the Big Acting Break of a Gap model).
The one surprise Pirate Radio offers is its on-a-dime turn from cartoon comedy to the third act of Titanic. Once the thingamajig ruptures in the boat, the mood turns from, "Oh, that's unfortunate," to, "Hey, we're probably going to die out here!" There's a lot of panic and scrambling and dramatic footage of water bursting down hallways. Of course, one of the DJs has to go down with the ship, and as The Count gives his farewell address over the air with a few of his shipmates urging him to leave as the water quickly fills the studio, my only thought was, "How are all these people not getting electrocuted?"
In the end, everyone makes it out okay. Legions of boats sweep in to pick up the stranded rock radio pioneers; even The Count escapes death by using his superhuman powers to bust his way up to the surface, even as the ship plunges into the sea with its unstoppable downward-pushing force.
I was baffled by Pirate Radio, considering how much I love Richard Curtis's Love Actually. That film, too, was a comedy with a large cast and multiple storylines; its success lay in the fact that each of the characters and sub-plots were fully realized and cut together in a way that flowed effortlessly. This movie is like a collection of writer's room notes that someone put to film.
It's not enough to rely on big personalities and a bitchin' classic rock soundtrack; movies with this caliber of talent and production value should stand for something, or at least mean something. Wasting a potentially great comedy about freedom of speech and the transformative power of music on slapstick gags that went out of style before the time in which the movie is set is a cosmically unforgivable offense. Hell, for all its historical relevance, Curtis could have set Pirate Radio in 2009 on an old school bus in Arizona and populated it with Disney Channel stars.
But that's not the film he chose to make. And now that this two-month odyssey of pain is over, I can finally relegate Pirate Radio to the Davy Jones' locker of my memory.