Dir: Richard Curtis
Blackadder co-creator Richard Curtis’ latest is set in 1966, a time when, despite the revolution taking place in pop music, the BBC played less than two hours of rock n roll and pop each week. The gap was filled by pirate stations, broadcasting from ships in the North Sea. The Boat That Rocked is a multi-stranded comedy set on a fictional ship, broadcasting Radio Rock.
The 60’s were a time of revolution; musical, social and political, you probably wouldn’t think that Richard Curtis, writer of Notting Hill and writer/director of Love Actually was the filmmaker best placed to celebrate that, and you’d be completely right. The Boat That Rocked, like all Curtis’ films, is all surface. We’re told how important this music was, but we never get any feeling of why, there’s no sense of personal connection with the music, even from the many DJ characters. That’s not to say the music isn’t great, it is, almost every scene has a brilliant, brilliant song as its score, but you’ve heard every single one of them in movies before, and Curtis uses them with such bludgeoning obviousness that rather than being excited to hear what the next classic will be you can almost play guess the soundtrack. The only time the music really works is when Wouldn’t It Be Nice is played, and that’s only really because I LOVE that record.
Richard Curtis is clearly not a director. Like Love Actually before it the visuals of The Boat That Rocked are solidly uninspired and uninspiring. The only memorable shots in this movie are those that you remember from other movies – a sinking boat sequence that is so redolent of Titanic that James Cameron could fairly sue, recurring sequences of people listening to Radio Rock that are all but lifted from The Truman Show, Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s character presenting his radio show, staged almost exactly like the first sequence (in a radio station) in which he appears in Almost Famous. Otherwise it’s evenly lit, studio bound, devoid of directorial personality, and deeply tedious to look at.
Curtis can, however, write, which makes it all the more disappointing that Boat’s screenplay is so staggeringly substandard. If you are British the film has one funny line, if you aren’t that goes down to zero, because the funny line relies on some cultural knowledge. One of the larger problems is that, Like Love Actually, there is so much going on in this movie that there’s never any real focus. Love Actually at least, by being essentially a series of vignettes, had some stories that worked in themselves, Boat doesn’t, it’s as if Curtis just threw all his poorly defined characters together and expected something funny to happen organically. It’s through line is probably meant to be a coming of age story for Carl (Tom Sturridge), but Carl is so unspeakably dull as a character and Sturridge brings so little charm and presence to the table that there’s nothing to be interested in. Worst is a deeply offensive three-minute scene revolving around Nick Frost’s portly DJ attempting to sneak Sturridge into his pitch-black bedroom so that Carl can lose his virginity to the unsuspecting floozy who is actually waiting for Frost. This is all played for laughs, but I couldn’t escape the notion that I was now expected to laugh at two men who were, basically, planning a rape. If I hadn’t been going to see a second film directly after this one I may well have walked out then.
I hesitate to describe most of the performing here as ‘acting’ because most of the cast just riff on their established personas, with Bill Nighy and Ralph Brown coming off as especially lazy. Those who don’t are either comatose (Sturridge), decorations (January Jones) or hamming outrageously (Kenneth Branagh). The exception, inevitably, is Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Apparently when Nighy heard that Hoffman was to be in the film he told Curtis that he was in awe; that Hoffman was “a changeling”, and so it proves. Hoffman is an object lesson in the skill of a truly great actor. His dialogue is just as stodgy and overwritten as everyone else’s, but his utter sincerity and seemingly bottomless talent makes even the worst moments play. A film as bad as The Boat That Rocked is an odd place to find final proof that Hoffman really is the greatest of his generation, but it offers some small compensation for the rest of the film.
With its incredibly digressive narrative - is it about the government attempting to shut down pirate radio, Carl’s coming of age, the rivalry between the DJs? Boat is both massively overlong (it could stand to lose 40 minutes, and the cuts are easy to see) and has an annoying mix of tones from stunningly unfunny farce with Branagh’s uptight MP and his aide ‘hilariously’ named Twatt (oh, my sides) to cloying sentimentality about Carl’s discovery of his Father. There’s no consistency, and that, added to the nagging feeling that Curtis has nothing deeper than “Pop music is good” to say makes the film entirely unengaging. I wish I could say with conviction that there are better comedies in the cinema right now, but there are better ways to spend two hours. If you want to laugh just get your DVD of Ghostbusters down and watch that again, if you want to here some great 60’s music then go out and buy some albums, but don’t watch The Boat That Rocked.