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Ship of fools

Pirate Radio



*Pirate Radio (R)


It's true that Richard Curtis' Pirate Radio is set in 1966, when official British radio stations did not carry rock 'n roll. It's also set on a seafaring broadcast operation, like those in real life that proliferated at the time to feed the public's desire for the music. But if you're expecting Pirate Radio actually to be about that time and circumstance, you are mistaken.

Over his 25-year career, Curtis has managed to find success with two radically different audiences. On the one hand, he makes witty but ultimately sentimental romances like Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Love Actually; on the other, he makes largely episodic comedic efforts, most notably Black Adder and Mr. Bean. Pirate Radio falls in the latter category, using its "inspired by true events" concept as little more than a framework for a lot of masculine carrying-on — most of which is wonderfully funny, even if it could just as easily have been about a bunch of rowdy soccer players.

And this is the context in which Curtis works best, allowing him to take advantage of his blistering wordplay and fondness for certain stock characters. We get an easily likeable hero in young Carl (Tom Sturridge), who comes aboard because his godfather, Quentin (Bill Nighy), is the ship's owner. Among the deejays-at-sea are The Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an American expatriate; Simon (Chris O'Dowd), the nice guy perpetually getting stepped on; and Dave (Nick Frost), who works alternately to help Carl lose his virginity and to steal his girlfriend. Add a resident dimwit, Thick Kevin (Tom Brooke), and you've got the recipe for great comedy.

The recipe works, provided you're not expecting more than laughs. Perhaps out of a sense of narrative obligation, Curtis throws in a few conflicts. Externally, there's a government official (Kenneth Branagh) trying to shut down Radio Rock's operation; internally, The Count carries on a rivalry with Angus (Rhys Darby), a deejay superstar who's just returned. Regular snippets showing music lovers listening back in England attempt to suggest that this historical footnote really moved and affected people, but it's a token effort among what feels like two hours of sketches.

Curtis gets much mileage out of the fact that Radio Rock is an all-male operation — the crew's lesbian cook notwithstanding — and therefore, they generally behave the way guys stuck together with no authority, high on their own sense of rebellion, likely would behave. The terrific cast eats up Curtis' snappy, profane patter, making their interactions so lively that it feels like you could hang around with these fellows forever.

Unfortunately, stuck with no answer for how he should end the yarn, Curtis turns the last 20 minutes into a maritime Titanic-like disaster epic. Even then, he manages to make some potentially maudlin moments into great comedy — particularly when Carl tries to help a deejay who can't part with his precious records, even in the face of impending death. But those moments battle for time with shots of water pouring through bulkheads, and a "Will they make it?" artificial drama that seems out of place.

Pirate Radio doesn't need such extraneous material to keep an audience engaged. Like his characters, Curtis rebels against a prevailing artistic sensibility — in this case, that really good jokes need a structure to keep them afloat.

Related Film

Pirate Radio

Official Site:

Director: Richard Curtis

Writer: Richard Curtis

Producer: Hilary Bevan Jones

Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Nighy, Rhys Ifans, Nick Frost, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Sturridge, Talulah Riley, January Jones, Rhys Darby and Chris O'Dowd

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