Richard Curtis makes romantic, sentimental and overlong comedies filled to the rafters with friends as cast members. He's a British Judd Apatow — indulgent, substituting sweetness for edge, charm for shock value.
His latest, Pirate Radio, is as jolly, jaunty and sappy as Love Actually. It was cut by more than a half-hour for American release and still plays long (two hours, 35 minutes). But thanks to that fairy-dusting of Curtis charm, I wouldn't cut a frame of it. It skips along like a much-loved old LP.
It's about the heyday of offshore "pirate radio" stations — broadcasting from old merchant ships to a Britain dying to hear the golden age of British pop but denied it by the staid BBC.
Curtis (Blackadder, Four Weddings and a Funeral) fills the good ship Radio Rock with his usual dizzy cast of castaways. The owner-operator is the dapper and vulpine Quentin (Bill Nighy, naturally). The star DJ is a Yank, the Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who is only too happy to be the first person to say the F-word on British airwaves. Then there's Midnight Mark (Tom Wisdom), a Jim Morrison wannabe; Bob the Dawn Treader; Thick Kevin; and Big Bad Dave (hilarious Nick Frost). The return of the legendary Gorgeous Gavin (Rhys Ifans, the perfect pop peacock) creates friction as he steals the Count's thunder and another DJ's woman.
It's 1966, and they're all on a rusty red hulk in the North Sea, where they live, sleep, drink and kick out the jams. Young Carl (Tom Sturridge) joins up after being kicked out of school. His virginity drives his shipmates mad, and they scheme of ways to "fix" that.
Also scheming is Sir Alistair (Kenneth Branagh), an absurdly priggish government minister who fumes about ways to "shut that filth off."
Curtis runs women to and from the ship — giving sexy scenes to Gemma Arterton and Emma Thompson. January Jones of Mad Men plays a woman who marries a DJ, and the pop- and wedding-loving Curtis treats us to the DJs serenading the lovely Elenore with the (1968) pop song of the same name: "You're my pride and joy, et cetera!"
He shot much of the movie — DJs seducing the microphone, legions of Brits of every description panting at their every word — with a handheld camera, giving the film a jittery, pop energy.
The young lead is bland, scenes and characters seem invented just to justify using a song, and the whole feels as chaotic and unfinished as the '60s. But something — the music, the nostalgia, the anarchy — gives Pirate Radio a little slovenly heart.
I know it's only rock 'n' roll. But I like it.