The Boat That Rocked

Six years on from the gruesome Love Actually, writer and director Richard Curtis returns with a limp comedy, set on board a 1960s pirate radio ship, that springs a leak soon after the opening credits and takes over two hours to sink. Nominally inspired by the real-life history of Radio Caroline, The Boat That Rocked is actually set in an alternate dimension, call it Curtis World; a jaunty, predominantly white and middle class place where silly people get up to all sorts of harmless fun and games.

The familiarity with which the film establishes the time and place is the first hint of trouble. A flashy arrangement of swinging stereotypes, fashioned after Richard Lester’s Help!, serves as shorthand for the burgeoning Age of Aquarius. Representing, in no particular order, youth, innocence, the audience and the absent Hugh Grant, fresh-faced, floppy haired teenager Carl (Tom Sturridge) is sent to be looked after by his louche godfather Quentin (Bill Nighy) when he gets into trouble at school. All Savile Row suits and charming insouciance, Quentin is skipper and owner of Radio Rock, a ship anchored in international waters off the British coast that broadcasts a steady stream of pop music to culture starved teenyboppers, a market ignored by the conservative mainstream.

The ship serves as studio and sleeping quarters for the all-male staff of DJs, led by alpha-male US import The Count (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), whose only stated desire is to be the first man to say 'fuck' on the radio. The rest of the ensemble is made up of Curtis’ standard British romantic-comedy archetypes; the eccentric one, Bob (Ralph Brown), the thick one, Kevin (Tom Brooke), the sole female one (Katherine Parkinson) and, later, the outrageous one, Gavin (Rhys Ifans). Much of the early action is devoted to Carl losing his virginity to any one of the dozens of dollybirds that descend, when required, on the ship like a Biba-clad horde. This momentous event appears imminent when he falls for worldly groupie Eleanora (Tallulah Riley) but, maddened by the pull of fame, she ends up with the fat one, Dave (Nick Frost). Curtis likes this bed-hopping joke so much that he repeats it twenty minutes later, when the sad one, melancholy breakfast presenter Simon (Chris O'Dowd), is gazumped by a rival on his wedding night. Yes, wedding. There is always a wedding in Curtis World.

The free-loving hippy DJs require an establishment against which to rebel so Kenneth Branagh arrives as the uptight square, Sir Alistair Dormandy, squirreling around Whitehall determined to find a loophole that will shut the pirates down. To this end Curtis gives him a sidekick named Twatt (Jack Davenport) and a comical moustache and then, as with all the other subplots, seems content to leave it at that.

It’s lame stuff indeed. The period sixties setting distinguishes the film from the rest of Curtis’ gelatinous repertoire, a feature the director hammers home in a series of extended Austin Powers montages that nestle uncomfortably between the casually sexist romps, nauseatingly contrived dance sequences and tired visual slapstick. Every so often Curtis cuts back to the mainland for a series of reaction shots; short sequences of everyday listeners responding to what is coming through the wireless exactly as they would if there was a movie camera pointed at them. Here too there is dancing but little evident joy.

Without anything of interest in the story to cling to, the extended running time turns what might have been a bright nostalgia trip into a deadening trudge. Unable to chart a steady course through his various storylines, Curtis is content to skip distractedly from skit to sketch but even with a well-chosen soundtrack of classic songs, he cannot sustain a mood and the film flags. His characters remain thin caricatures and look uniformly adrift in between the funny bits. Eventually, the film runs out of those; more than once an actor is asked to face the camera and lip-sync along to a song on the soundtrack, like karaoke. It is a striking waste of a talented cast, many of them mainstays of the director’s informal repertory company.

The Boat That Rocked might not be the worst Richard Curtis film ever, but it is the worst yet.

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