By Colin Covert
“Pirate Radio” is a painful little mistake of a movie. It’s a salute to jubilant classic rock that’s as boring and stiff as a Britney Spears lip-synch concert.
Imagine the dullest moments from “Almost Famous” and the lamest bits from “Animal House” held together with clumsy Frankenstein stitching. Now punch yourself in the face. There you go.
Back in 1966, the BBC was Britain’s primary source of broadcast music, and its programmers rarely played anything edgier than Perry Como. Antiestablish-ment types found a way to give the people what they craved, erecting unlicensed radio towers on ships outside the nation’s jurisdiction.
Radio Rock, based on a decrepit fishing trawler in the North Sea, blasted the Who, Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones to a grateful nation.
In the film’s nostalgia-saturated view, it serves as an unofficial soundtrack to the Swinging ’60s. Grateful dolly birds in miniskirts arrive by the boatful for conjugal visits with their idols. Whenever the story’s overlapping sketches wander into a dead end — frequently — we get a montage of shopgirls or students twisting to prohibited pop songs. This is not an image that grows more interesting with repetition.
The film boasts a star-studded cast, some much better than others. Philip Seymour Hoffman oozes panache in the role of a scruffy Yank DJ, Bill Nighy is breezy and strange as the Carnaby Street cadaver who runs the station, and Kenneth Branagh finds the fun in a stale characterization as the Puritan Cabinet minister who has sworn to shut them down.
Writer/director Richard Curtis (“Love, Actually”) serves his players poorly, however, shuffling them through heavy-handed comic sketches.
“Pirate Radio” drifts here and there without a clear destination. Beyond setting his characters against the stuffy authorities and letting them dabble with sex, drugs and excess on the boat, Curtis has no built-in trajectory in mind for any of them. The main action of the story follows a teen, played by Tom Sturridge, visiting his godfather (Nighy) on shipboard. Through him we’re introduced to the strenuously quirky DJ crew. Pudgy Nick Frost plays a lumpish Casanova with schoolboy swagger. Rhys Ifans is an incorrigible rule breaker with an ego the size of a Roman emperor’s.
The DJs carry on as if they are messiahs with a mission to save the planet, a notion that could be funny if only Curtis pricked it and let out the pomposity.
The anything-goes setting would seem like a great launching pad for witty shenanigans. No such luck. The crew makes silly faces, riffs air guitars and cavorts with boisterous abandon, guided more by the film’s desperate need for excitement than by genuine euphoria.