The Boat That Rocked (15)

That sinking feeling

Keep thinking that, and give the movie that's attached to it an almighty body swerve. Curtis may exhibit fine taste as a pop picker, but the vessel on which he's aboard as writer-director really isn't seaworthy. An ensemble comedy, it aims to pay homage to Radio Caroline (here called Radio Rock), the floating pirate station that cocked a snook at the establishment and eventually got sunk.

In one of its first montages we watch legendary DJ The Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman) delivering his late night on-air patter and spinning a disc, at which point the movie cuts away to pop fans all over, huddled around their radios, bopping along with delighted smiles and giggles – the aural equivalent of a group hug. But then Curtis keeps on cutting to these radio huddlers, as though he can't get enough of proclaiming what a wonderful social glue pop music provides. In vain do you wait for anything resembling a narrative. Tom Sturridge plays Carl, a floppy-haired 18-year-old expelled from school and improbably entrusted to his godfather, Captain Bill Nighy, by his errant mother. What does Carl do on the boat? We never find out, but it allows Curtis to introduce the shambolic conga-line of dudes and dorks that make up the crew of Radio Rock: the tubby lecherous one (Nick Frost), the cool scarecrow one (Rhys Ifans), the lanky thick one, the token lesbian, the nerdy bespectacled one, and so on.

Oh, what larks they get up to, these 24-hour party pirates – the japes, the swearing, the to-and-fro banter, the sexual high jinks! You wouldn't mind if one of them went right ahead and established an actual character, but none of them does. All they're on board and on screen for is to tell us... what, exactly? "Governments loathe people being free" seems to be the message, and soon we have evidence of it.

In Whitehall, thin-lipped minister Kenneth Branagh – wearing specs like Burt Lancaster's in Sweet Smell of Success – has decreed that pirate radio must be routed. To this end he hires a mandarin to nobble the Radio Rock crew. The name of this mandarin? Twatt. And the name of his assistant? Miss Clitt. It makes the later Carry On films look like Sheridan. Truly, it's a chilling moment when you realise that this whole film is in the hands of a man who thinks "Twatt" is a hilarious name for a character.

If it is hopelessly crass, it's also stupefyingly lazy. The way it manoeuvres the ingenu Carl into his abortive sexual initiation is embarrassing – poor Gemma Arterton endures the full bedroom farce – and his later inklings that the Dead Head DJ Bob (Ralph Brown) is his father aren't furnished with the meanest veil of mystery. The nuptial deception practised on pudgy loser Chris O'Dowd is too ridiculous to be cruel, and seems to have been written only as a means of allowing January Jones (Betty from TV's Mad Men) to parachute in for a cameo. She seems to be reciting her lines from cue cards, which are in fact all they deserve.

There has always been a strong whiff of public-schoolboy humour detectable in Curtis's work, but there were also good lines in Four Weddings, Bridget Jones's Diary and even Love Actually. Curtis used to claim that his wife, Emma Freud, was the sternest editor of his work, much given to peppering his scripts with the acidic marginalia NBG (No Bloody Good) and CDB (Could Do Better). Has she been relieved of this duty? Or does she perhaps no longer notice?

Whoever acts as script editor these days (if is there one) has seen fit to allow The Boat That Rocked to putter on for two hours and 15 minutes. This makes room for big set-pieces, such as the contest between rival DJs to see who can climb highest on the mast of their boat, and a stag do involving our heroes peeing against a wall – the rebels!

I'm not sure that audiences will suffer a terror of anticipation wondering if the victors of the story will be the pinched goons of Government bureaucracy or the wacky, freewheeling, free-swearing pirates of the airwaves. But then you remember that many of those rebels ended up on Radio 1, playing the same music and polluting the air with their inane, mid-Atlantic twitter. So what is being mourned here? One suspects it's the anti-authoritarian spirit of rock'n'roll, which is an irony given the determinedly polite, inclusive, middle-of-the-road spirit in which this operates. For a man who loves the raucous, ebullient pop of the 1960s, Curtis's own output has been terribly, terminally square. This latest is a new low: The Film That Sucked.

Do you agree with Anthony Quinn's review? Have your say on 'The Boat That Rocked' at independent.co.uk/filmforum and we'll print the best of them in Wednesday's paper.

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