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Overwhelmed by Indifference and the Promise of an Early Bed

By Dustin Rowles | Film | November 12, 2009 |

By Dustin Rowles | Film | November 12, 2009 |

You can’t have your cake and eat it, too.

What the fuck is that expression supposed to even mean? What good is a cake if you can’t eat it? It seems to me, if you’ve got a cake, and you can’t eat it, then it’s no use to you. It’s just interminable temptation. It’s better to have no cake at all, damnit.

Richard Curtis’ Pirate Radio represents something of the inverse of that expression: It’s way too much cake, you’ve got to eat it all, and there’s no goddamn milk to wash it down with. There’s enough sugar in Pirate Radio to trigger a collective coma in a ship load of apathetic diabetics. The first few bites are decent enough, but then you begin to realize that the icing is nothing but sweetened vegetable shortening obscuring the flavorless cake-like substance, and all it does is leaving you craving vegetables. Imagine that as a movie poster blurb: “Pirate Radio: Inspires a craving for sprouts!”

Released to a mixed reception last year in England (as The Boat the Rocked), Pirate Radio has had an additional 20 minutes removed from the UK version (which, itself, had had nearly an hour edited out of the original cut) and yet, even the US version is stretches your patience. An occasional musical montage can be effective in a lot of movies to lighten the tone or speed a transition, but Pirate Radio feels more like a tremendously long musical montage interrupted occasionally by the narrative, which doesn’t amount to much in the end.

In typical Curtis fashion, Pirate Boat’s ensemble is far too large to give anyone anything more than a one-note personality — and for most of the characters, that note revolves around how often or not he or she gets laid (save for the lone female (Katherine Robinson) aboard the ship, who is — shocking! — a lesbian). Nick Frost is cheeky; Rhys Darby is randy; Tom Brooke is thick (in fact, his character’s name is Thick Kevin); Rhys Ifans is the rebellious rocker-type (signified by the leather jacket); Jack Davenport is no more dimensional than his character name, Twatt; Kenneth Branagh is a humorless sourpus; and Gemma Arterton, Emma Thompson, and January Jones aren’t even in the film long enough to acquire a one-note personality. Only Bill Nighy — as the pirate station’s owner — and Phillip Seymour Hoffman — as the main DJ, Yank the Count — manage to do much with their characters, and it’s only through the sheer will of their own personalities, in spite of toneless script. It’s also nice to see Phillip Seymour Hoffman in a feel-good movie rather than another dreary indie drama that makes you want to blow your brains out with a shotgun blast into your ass.

The plot, such as it is, concerns this motley-merry band of flat conforming anti-conformist characters riding around on a ship off the coast of England airing a rock n’ roll radio station so as to avoid the strict BBC regulations. The only real narrative driving force aboard the ship — where they remain for the entirety of the movie — is trying to rid the virgin (Tom Sturridge, the main character, though you’d hardly know it) of his affliction, a la Almost Famous. Meanwhile, Branagh’s grumpy Sir Alistair Dormandy and his assistant, Twatt, represent the hostile government forces, and spend what little screen time they have attempting to shut down the pirate radio station (a subplot that trails off into nothing). The rest of it is a messy, unstructured series of ’60s rock songs, a few dance sequences, and — too often — sentimental confessions of affection for one another that all leads toward a daffy Titanic-lite finale.

There’s really not much else to Pirate Radio, though it certainly has its share of sweet moments (too many, perhaps) and if you’re into ’60s nostalgic rock, it’s an easy movie to experience. It’s light and fluffy, edgeless, and completely frivolous, but like Curtis’ previous movie, Love, Actually, it’s inoffensive and exuberant enough to keep your mindlessly preoccupied. At least until the sweetness tickles your gag reflex and your left sitting with a puddle of your own cake upchuck.