Richard Curtis – the anti-Ken Loach of British cinema – is a hard guy not to like. Go on, try it. See, you cant. It's just not possible. Sure, his movies and scripts continue to display a preoccupation with upper-middle class buffoonery, and yes, he perhaps has demonstrated something of a fascination with Hugh Grant's floppy fringe. But in an age where its hip to be cynical there is something undeniably disarming about his rose-tinted view of encroaching middle-age, where real world responsibilities kind of melt away leaving plenty of time for harmless drug use, consequence-free tomfoolery, and inoffensive hell-raising.
Having made his name penning the scripts for such well received hits as Four Weddings and Notting Hill, Curtis takes his second crack at the directorial whip following the crowd-pleasing Love Actually. Loosely based on the Radio Caroline story, the name given to ships broadcasting from international waters in the mid sixties as a way around government regulations, Pirate Radio offers Curtis the opportunity to whip up an ode to counter-culture on the high seas indulging his two favorite subjects – awkward overgrown schoolboys lusting after posh totty, and music. Some might even say (harshly) that the story itself doesn't matter and is simply an excuse to rock out to some great tunes. Radio Rock, as Philip Seymour Hoffman's scruffy DJ, The Duke, duly announces, is "Where we count down to ecstasy and rock all day and all of the night!"; cue The Kinks "All Day and All of the Night." But hey, who can argue?
Our guide through this rogues gallery of Peter Pans is Carl (Sturridge), a befuddled schoolboy packed off by his mother to Radio Rock, anchored off the coast of Britain, where the father he has never known may or may not be aboard. This quickly takes a back seat however to the fractious but good natured camaraderie of the crew, all of whom have willfully given up their time, and their sex lives (except Saturdays when the girlfriends, and working girls are shuttled aboard), to bring Rock'n'Roll to the music starved masses of the nation.
The cast is a veritable greatest hits of top British talent, standouts of which include oafish playboy, Dave (Nick Frost), kiwi pillock, Angus (Rhys Darby), and Ralph Brown's magnificent trippy hippy, Bob, so much in his own world no one has noticed him being on board for three months. An ensemble picture in the truest sense even fringe players like ladies favorite, the stoic and perma-silent Midnight Mark (Tom wisdom), and runt of the litter, the affectionately named Thick Kevin (Tom Brooke) all get their little moments to shine and the improv heavy nature of the shoot lends a real organic chemistry to proceedings that a more rigid script might have negated.
One thing Pirate Radio is lacking is serious conflict, and its in the antagonist department that Curtis sadly sinks. Fans of Curtis' sarcasm masterclass Blackadder might well recall the comic genius of a man christened "Darling." Sadly repeating the same gag minus the rapier-like subtlety is less amusing, as Jack Davenport's wholly un-sinister civil servant "Twatt" can attest. With Twatt and his cabinet minister boss, Sir Alister Dormandy (Kennth Brannagh, complete with gray suit and Hitler moustache) offering all the menace of, well, two underwritten, broadly drawn bureaucrats, it's hard to really buy into any sense of threat.
What steers Pirate Radio through these choppy second act waters though are a pair of commanding performances, both from Hoffman and also Bill Nighy as the group's old time, stiff-upper-lipped defacto leader. It's when these two speak you get the feeling that this is really about something, and that the stakes (the criminalization of Radio Rock and the banishment of Rock'n'Roll) are suitably high. The rest of the time Curtis simply clings to the safety of montage, but the seemingly endless clips of reserved English folk rocking out in the bathroom, or the closet, or under the duvet with a flashlight are not quite the zeitgeist snapshot the director was perhaps counting on.
Still, there is more than enough going on here in the shape of simple, unashamed good times to carry the film ashore on a wave of sheer sincerity, and the final chapter that sees out motley crew literally go down with the ship is a triumph of tone. A beautiful underwater rescue featuring Carl and his newly discovered dad to the tune of Cat Stevens "Father and Son" is just breathtaking (no pun intended), and the immediate undermining of the entire event for the sake of a cheap gag showcases Curtis' great comic gifts. The final sequence of a Dunkirk-like rescue mounted by a tiny armada of devoted listeners will melt even the iciest of hearts, we guarantee it.
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Nighy, Tom Sturridge, Rhys Darby, Nick Frost, Chris O'Dowd, Katherine Parkinson, Rhys Ifans, Kenneth Branagh, Jack Davenport
Director: Richard Curtis
Runtime: 135 Minutes
Distributor: Focus Features