Posted: 11/11/2009


Pirate Radio


by Matt Fagerholm

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When faced with an unapologetic crowd pleaser such as this, viewers have two options: either resist its shamelessly manipulative fist-pumping, or dive into its pleasurably untroubled waters. The latter will certainly make for a better experience, though British filmmaker Richard Curtis certainly makes the former tempting at times. His films are aggressively upbeat, a fact he is well aware of. After years of earning cynical laughter with his show “Blackadder,” Curtis turned to romantic comedy, and wrote some of the most popular recent entries to the genre—Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Bridget Jones’s Diary. By the time he got to his 2003 directorial debut, Love Actually, it seemed as if his entire world outlook had changed. The film featured 22 leading characters, most of whom find love, though it had just the right amount of drama and darkness to make its overall effect genuinely touching.

Curtis claims that he deliberately wanted Love Actually to piss off critics who found his work too cloying, and the filmmaker has clearly made Pirate Radio with the same sentiment. Since its title seems to change on a country-by-country basis, I’m convinced that Curtis should have just called it Rock Actually. It’s another overlong ensemble piece featuring a cast of gleeful goofballs who are ready to rock in the face of conformity. The plot, loosely based on actual events, centers on a boatload of rogue DJs perched in the North Sea, who broadcast rock ‘n roll music 24/7 to a devoted fan-base of repressed British citizens. Since rock has been banned from Britain’s airwaves, government big wigs are determined to shut down the station. This real-life battle is played for broad self-congratulatory laughs that have all the subtlety of a cartoon. But few moviegoers will be going to this film expecting a history lesson. If they’re expecting a good time, they have a good chance of not being disappointed.

Curtis wisely gives his actors the space to breathe, and thus allows them to spark off each other with relatively natural ease. As the lone American DJ (known as The Count), Philip Seymour Hoffman seems to be channeling an amped up version of his memorable music critic in Almost Famous. He provides the film with a considerably strong emotional center, though the majority of the picture is easily stolen by Rhys Ifans (as a fellow DJ whose voice reverberates with sexual charisma) and ship captain Bill Nighy (still the king of offhanded one-liners). All of the onboard shenanigans are witnessed through the eyes of a young everyman (Tom Sturridge) who’s always on the lookout for his long-lost father…and perhaps a shag.

Though Curtis wants to sustain a whimsical tone throughout, his script routinely encounters serious subject matter that it would rather shy away from. Every time a potential tragedy rears its party-pooping head, the characters emerge unscathed, at the expense of all possible credibility. This leads to a climax straight out of Titanic, with The Beach Boys’s “Would It Be Nice” standing in for “Nearer My God To Thee.” As tense as the sequence plays out, it fails to generate much suspense, especially when the characters prove they can easily hold their breaths underwater for an inordinate amount of time. If you think that’s hard to swallow, wait till you see the hunky Sturridge receiving tips from the portly Nick Frost on how to seduce hot women. When January Jones shows up in an icy cameo, her mere appearance reminds audiences of how her masterful show “Mad Men”’s depiction of the period far surpasses this candy-colored nostalgia.

But is Curtis’s escapist nostalgia really such a crime? It’s enticing to give his film a pass purely on the basis of his motives. He’s repeatedly said in interviews that since he’s lived such a charmed life, he feels like it’s his obligation to help spread joy into the world through his films, as opposed to spreading hopelessness and despair. His films are meant to be comfort food, and Pirate Radio is an agreeably flavorful dish, despite its rather stale aftertaste. Oh…and did I mention there’s some good music on the soundtrack?

Matt Fagerholm Matt Fagerholm is a freelance writer, film enthusiast and critic in Chicago.

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