Writer-director Richard Curtis is about as rock n’ roll as the average great-grandmother, so it’s no surprise that Pirate Radio, his ode to the irrepressible spirit of ‘60s classic rock, has all the electricity of a knitted sweater. Curtis’s second behind-the-camera effort centers around Radio Rock, a boat that—because of fuddy-duddy ‘60s England’s refusal to broadcast rock music—transmitted verboten tunes by the Who, Jimi Hendrix, and the Rolling Stones (among others) from international waters, where British authorities couldn’t touch them. Radio Rock was a ragamuffin outfit created by dapper anti-establishment captain Quentin (Bill Nighy), led by transplanted Yank the Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and populated by a group of characters whose ribald quirks and eccentric behavior begs to be called “colorful.”
Pirate Radio, however, is light years from transgressive, basing its various faux-wacky tales of disc jockey tomfoolery (Conjugal visits at sea! Drinking! Macho games of chicken!) around a baseline narrative—involving young Carl’s (Tom Sturridge) experiences joining the musically obsessed crew—poorly pilfered from Almost Famous. Amid its various plot threads, Curtis ham-fistedly celebrates musical rebel yells via countless montages composed of DJs joyously dancing, air-guitaring and making funny faces, and cutaway shots of everyday Brits impulsively shimmying, shaking, and smiling like buffoons at the wondrous sounds emanating from their transistor radios.
Rather than truly tapping into rock’s invigorating power to inspire or its inherent nature as a snarling impudent rebuke to conformity, Pirate Radio treats its central genre as merely a reserve to be plundered for appropriately upbeat or gloomy soundtrack accompaniment, never worse than when Curtis actually uses Leonard Cohen’s “So Long Marianne” over a scene featuring the departure of Carl’s love interest of the same name. Curtis’s film pays lip service to rock while wholeheartedly embracing a conventional, toothless multi-character comedy status quo, an irony lost on the film as it barrels from cheesy gags to Carl’s MIA-daddy revelation to a superfluous Emma Thompson cameo.
In terms of broad, conservative cornball nonsense, Curtis’s secret weapon is Kenneth Brannagh as an old-guard government official who—along with, I kid you not, a sidekick named Twatt (Jack Davenport)—purses his lips and screams “Ass!” while trying (for the good of the Queen!) to shut Radio Rock down. His scenes of scheming and sitting around a table with similar gray-haired, dark-suited grumps are the proceedings’ humorless nadir, so cartoonish and unfunny that they dull even the sole moment which captures rock’s unbridled sexual potency, a laughably bonkers finale that restages Titanic‘s conclusion with rescue boats brimming with horny girls and Hoffman bursting forth from Davey Jones’s locker with ejaculatory triumph.