Do you like montages, but grow bored with the tedious plot bits in between? Then Pirate Radio is the movie for you. Set in 1966, during what an opening title helpfully labels “the greatest era for British rock ’n’ roll,” the movie takes place almost entirely on a massive, red-hulled ship that has been converted into a radio station for the purpose of promulgating the devil’s music to Britain’s unsuspecting populace, who would otherwise be limited to the rock-free BBC. Kenneth Branagh, copping Basil Fawlty’s mannerisms so blatantly that he should be paying John Cleese royalties, plays the government minister obsessed with shutting the pirates down, and Bill Nighy plays the station’s owner, a droll toff fond of scarves and wasp-waisted suits.
Curtis stocks the boat with a crew of fine comic actors, mostly playing the DJs of Radio Rock: Rhys Darby, Nick Frost, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, essentially doing a more animated take on Almost Famous’ Lester Bangs. But while they successfully convey a sense of shipboard camaraderie, enhanced by the boat’s no-girls-allowed rule, Curtis seems to have no idea how to take advantage of their talents. Darby plays an awkward semi-square à la Flight Of The Conchords, and Chris O’Dowd essentially Xeroxes his character from The IT Crowd. The driving force behind a wave of blandly successful British comedies that include Love Actually and the Bridget Jones films, Curtis evidently has the pull to purchase a dream cast, but not the ingenuity to take advantage of it.
Pirate Radio tries to create an atmosphere of boudoir farce mingled with love-generation libertinage, but while the men seem like randy wolves, the women are merely rancid, disloyal, disingenuous creatures whose actions seem untroubled by any kind of higher thought. Mad Men’s January Jones gets the worst role, as a guileless tart who marries O’Dowd’s loveless schnook solely to get close to Rhys Ifans’ swaggering popinjay. It’s bad enough that Curtis has made one more vanilla boomer comedy mindlessly touting the freedoms of the ’60s, but he can’t even keep his facts straight. A good many of the songs he relies on to push his torpid narrative forward were released well after the film’s events took place, and where he departs from the real events that inspired his story, he invariably does so in the service of making them less interesting. For a movie that ostensibly promotes individuality, Pirate Radio manifests precious little.