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A Comedy Fan's Review: Pirate Radio

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

You know how sometimes you hear about a film that has so many good ingredients, it can't help but be the best thing since antibodies? Such a flick is Richard Curtis's Pirate Radio (known in its homeland as The Boat that Rocked).

It's very difficult to imagine a better ingredients list for what sounds like a lighthearted movie with maybe a sneaky message or two. First, there's writer/director Curtis, who can make comedy look easy. Then there's a phenomenal cast led by legend-in-his-own-time Philip Seymour Hoffman, a couple of genuine stars (Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson) in bit parts plus iconic British comic actors like Bill Nighy, Rhys Ifans, Nick Frost, and Marvin the freaking Paranoid Android Stephen Moore as the Prime Minister. And this is all poured into a story that has anti-establishment nuts built right in: a crop of rebels living in (much) sin on a cramped boat with the singular mission of bringing the empowering voodoo of rock and roll to the desperately controlled Brits of the 1960s. I went to the theater fully expecting to geek-gasm myself to sleep for weeks.

Unfortunately, while such a knock-out grocery list may be what it takes to get one's attention -- and, as importantly, to get a film financed -- sometimes when you dump those ingredients into a movie and stir semi-vigorously, you ultimately serve up a half-assed lump of yawn. Such a fail is Pirate Radio.

To be fair, in an unfairly backhanded way, more than half of the music is good, and there's enough innuendo and dancing to keep an audience awake for most of the show. That's pretty much the best I can say about Pirate Radio. It wasn't torture, but it also wasn't very much fun.

I wondered whether Curtis could coax anything thespian-like out of Nick Frost, my current favorite actor who can't act. Turns out, no. Frost's one quality performance remains the part that was written for him in Shaun of the Dead, though the "Mettle" episode of Spaced pulls off an honorable mention.

I also wondered how Curtis would handle an exceptionally talented American lead actor like Hoffman, given the embarrassment he tends to heap on Americans. Andie MacDowell's dunderheaded turn in Four Weddings and a Funeral probably contravened the Geneva Conventions Against Unreasonably Cruel Directing. In Pirate Radio, he inflicts on Hoffman frequently ludicrous dialog and a Deputy Dawg manner. This is presumably because those Yanks, you know, are all militaristic and self-indulgent like George W. Bush -- see also Sam Rockwell's Zaphod in 2005's The Incompetent Hitch-hiker's Incomprehensible Guide to the Uninteresting Galaxy. Yeah, I know HIHIGUG has nothing to do with Curtis, but the parallel makes me wonder... Do you think all of today's Brit directors were so radicalized by what Disney did to their culture with Mary Poppins that they are now willing to blow up their own productions to wage lazily prejudicial characterization on all American actors?

Surely, though, Curtis wouldn't drown the talent of a British treasure like Kenneth Branagh. Actually, yes he would. Branagh's Sir Alistair Stereotypical Tight-ass, whose mission it is to represent the government's hatred of all things rocky and rolly, can't decide whether he's just doing his job, chasing some unexplained vendetta, or being a prick for prickishness's sake.

The less said about the genuinely gifted comic performer Emma Thompson's genuinely appalling anticomic role in this flick, the better. Tip: if you can't see the actor's mouth because she's wearing a collar that goes up to her nose, we in the cheap seats will have a hard time telling what she's saying, how she's emoting, and why we're there.

And while I'm tipping, here's one for movie makeup artists: if the male character can't plausibly have a pierced ear but the actor does have a pierced ear, how about spackling that sucker? Conservative Branagh's conservative anti-rock enforcer Jack Davenport (his straight-laced character is hilariously named "Twatt!" Get it?! "Twatt!") manages to have at least one close-up stolen by his implausibly perforated earlobe. Billy Bob Thornton pulled off this same eye-roller in Sling Blade, as if his mentally handicapped rural Arkansan hero, in a mental institution since childhood, maybe wandered off to the mall one day and got a discreet cubic zirconia stud stapled into his head.

Pirate Radio ropes together actor abuse and continuity disdain with a script-by-numbers screenplay whose plot holes you could pilot a ship through. It's such a disappointment that the guy who sculpted the classic Love, Actually (almost flawless, except for the Americans, again) wasted this kick-ass idea. I was thinking how much I wished Edgar Wright or Sir Alan Parker or Michael Winterbottom had helmed this flick, because their productions always show evidence of hard, thoughtful, creative work. But that's not it. Really, I just wish Richard Curtis had helmed this flick with more of the hard, thoughtful, creative work we know he can put into big screen comedy.

Mostly arbitrary rating for Pirate Radio: C plus, three and a half stars out of let's say five or six, rental (maybe), thumbs halfway up plus a knuckle.