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MOVIES: 'Pirate Radio':Rocking the music boat

Special Photo: Focus Features. Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as an American DJ in "Pirate Radio."

Special Photo: Focus Features. Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as an American DJ in "Pirate Radio."

Pirate Radio

(R)

2 1/2 out of 4 stars

In his directorial debut ("Love Actually"), longtime screenwriter Richard Curtis was able to brilliantly flesh out the stories of about a dozen principal characters in a film that was a little more than two hours long but felt more like 90 minutes. It was one of the most daring, smartest and water-tight romance movies of the last decade.

With "Pirate Radio" (original title: "The Boat That Rocked"), Curtis populates the film with the same amount of characters but instead of a focused, tightly-knit, interwoven narrative, he slaps together what is essentially a sloppy male bonding flick. It's the same length as "Love Actually" but feels twice as long.

If not for what could rightfully be labeled as the greatest soundtrack of this century keeping it afloat, the ship the movie takes place on would sink far earlier than it actually does.

Considering the rich wellspring of real-life events on which the story is based, and Curtis' mostly impressive resume, the movie is surprisingly dull, predictable and not nearly as funny as it thinks it is. It has its bright spots, and if it had ended when it first appeared to be doing so we would have all been better served.

In 1966, even after 15 years of rock 'n' roll controlling the world's air waives, the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) flatly refused to acknowledge its existence. Recognizing a cultural void (and possible commercial windfall), wealthy swinger types like Quentin (Bill Nighy) bought old shipping vessels, refurbished them with broadcasting equipment and dropped anchor in the North Sea just outside the government's official jurisdiction.

This rogue but harmless behavior became a thorn in the side of many stuffy English autocrats and in particular Sir Alistair Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh). While technically illegal, pirate operators were listened to daily by dedicated millions which put the government in a prickly position. Taking action against hippies committing what was a victimless crime came off as desperate and petty and the gruff, so the terminally square Dormandy had to tread lightly.

Dormandy makes for an excellent antagonist who bears more than a passing resemblance to Adolf Hitler and isn't given nearly as much screen time as he should. Curtis chooses instead to devote a massive chunk of story to Quentin's nephew Carl (Tom Sturridge) who is brought aboard the ship to unite with the father he can't identify and has never met. Carl soon abandons his original quest and makes it his mission to lose his virginity.

This is the type of story that could provide the springboard for a ripe, one or two season-long HBO series. The aging playboy captain, the pretty-boy neophyte, two handfuls of mostly loopy DJs, a lesbian housekeeper and the lone American (played here by Philip Seymour Hoffman) all need more fleshing out than Curtis affords them.

You should wait for the DVD but immediately purchase the 32-track, two-disc soundtrack CD. While including some familiar classics by the Who, the Kinks, the Beach Boys and Jim Hendrix, it contains just as many rare and obscure period chestnuts and has a low list price to boot. (Focus Features)