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Film Of The Day: The Boat That Rocked (2009)

July 15, 2010 by Simon Kinnear in At Home with 0 Comments

Disclaimer: Film Of The Day doesn’t necessarily mean that said film is any good. Sometimes, it’s important to direct your attention to the ones that should be avoided.*

*But if you insist on watching it like some masochistic fool, it’s on at 9:50pm on Sky Movies ‘Comedy’. No, I’m not sure why, either.

The Boat That Rocked
(Richard Curtis, UK, 2009)

…but forgot to roll. Curtis’ pirate DJ comedy feels half-finished. The potential is there, it looks and sounds great, but the comedy has fallen overboard.

It’s become synonymous with everything that’s bad about mainstream British comedy – crass, manipulative, sentimental and coasting on its own smugness – but Richard Curtis’ Love, Actually is something of a guilty pleasure of mine. Yeah, so it’s all of the things described above, but it’s also chock-full of zingers and great performances, and assembled with gusto and genuine love by an enthusiastic ringmaster.

The Boat That Rocked, however, is a different proposition: the leakiest of vessels, destined to go down with all aboard. On the surface, it’s a gift of a story – a fictionalised account of 60s pirate radio that should play like the once-mooted fifth Blackadder series, The Blackadder Five (with Edmund running a 1960s beat combo, including Tony Robinson as hairless drummer Bald Rick). There’s surely loads of mileage in its clash of starchy post-war conformity and drug-tokin’, free-lovin’ counter-culture, allied to the inherent humour of a bunch of sex-starved lads confined to quarters. And the soundtrack, by necessity, has to be rockin’.

Good points first: the soundtrack is superb, better than any sitcom could ever hope to achieve: bagging the rights to various Stones, Kinks, Who, Beach Boys tracks must have been astronomically expensive. And Curtis is clearly relishing his new career behind a camera, getting the aesthetics of his candy-coloured fantasy bang-on. No kitchen sink realism here: this is Barbarella by way of Blow-Up (directly homaged in cutaways to a model in a photographer’s studio). There’s also enormous freedom in the loose, free-form structure. For a writer, Curtis is quite happy to abandon the prospect of over-written scenes to allow his cast to muck about…

Unfortunately, that’s also the film’s biggest problem. Curtis hasn’t the discipline as a director to sense that, actually, he could do with a decent writer at the helm. The film is flawed from the start by a baffling dual structure, in which dramatic tension is hoisted upon the boat by an entirely separate subplot involving square politician Kenneth Branagh’s attempts to get Radio Rock banned. The two strands only collide indirectly: Branagh never boards the boat, meets to speaks to any of the DJs… Hell, he’s only caught listening to the radio once or twice. Meanwhile, the guys on the boats go about their business, playing records and larking about.

Which does not a film make. OK, so Curtis periodically includes an extended sketch about one or other of the lads trying to get a shag; but mostly, events glide by in montage, as the DJs piss about while, across Britain, kids listen to the radio. Nearly always in slow motion. The first time, it’s bearable as scene-setting. The second time, irritating. By the tenth, positively unbearable. Perhaps Curtis intended to evoke the three-minute sugar-rush of the rock ‘n’ roll song, turning his film into a visual jukebox…which would be acceptable if he had more than one idea how to portray this.

The result leaves a rather fine cast all at sea, clinging to the lifeboat of their occasional spotlights: Nick Frost enjoys playing a chubby Lothario, while Rhys Darby suggests there’s more to his pedantic persona than Flight of the Conchords. But most get…very little. Ralph Brown is left to sleepwalk through memories of Withnail and I and Wayne’s World 2, while nominal stars Philip Seymour Hoffman and Rhys Ifans are so wasted their one big moment is spent fighting each other. Elsewhere, the broad characterisation – allied to lack of plausible motivation – leaves the film’s women folk looking like celeb-hungry slags. Sure, it’s a guy’s world – but so was Blackadder, and the stupidity of its men there was set in sharp relief by some very sharp women. Here, everybody is stupid.

Ultimately, this is a cartoon, a piece of wish-fulfilment for a world that can’t possibly have been this benevolent. As the final half-hour symbolically kills the freedom of the pirates with lots of elegiac shots of vinyl records floating away (in slow motion, natch) it reads like Curtis’ baby boomer lament for good music – a hunch confirmed by the overt worship of the LP in the mushy end credits montage. It’s exactly the same device as Love, Actually’s mosaic of lovers, and just as simple-minded, but at least Love, Actually offered the odd insight into human behaviour along the way. Here, it really is the music and the music alone that does the talking.

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