Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Boat That Flopped

I doubt that Richard Curtis has a bigger fan than me. His first big movie success, the original screenplay for Four Weddings and a Funeral, was original and outstanding – it is my favourite film of all time. I also hugely enjoyed Notting Hill and then Love Actually – a film that he also directed. Bridget Jones Diary, for which he wrote the screenplay of Helen Fielding’s novel, was also pure Curtis and very enjoyable - as were his television scripts for Blackadder and the Vicar of Dibley. To me the strength of Curtis has been not only his talent for humorous writing and plotting but his willingness to tackle controversial subjects with a light but sure hand. Across his oeuvre there is homosexuality, class, race, disability, dementia, adultery, obesity, and plenty of licentiousness and lust. In that respect his work holds a mirror up to society and reflects back life’s highs and lows, joys and disappointments and frustrations and satisfactions in a realistic way - with only the occasional exaggeration or use of poetic licence.

The Boat that Rocked deals with a subject, Pirate Radio, and an era, the “swinging sixties”, that is surely ripe for social comedy and humorous treatment. Quite why Curtis has created such a turkey is difficult to fathom – given his outstanding track record. But turkey it is - not just Curtis’s biggest creative and commercial failure by far but arguably one of the worst films ever made. The $50m+ budget and the galaxy of starts that Curtis managed to persuade to be involved including Bill Nighy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rhys Ifans, Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh, could not rescue a film that is ill-plotted, tritely written, self-indulgent, and worst of all very unfunny. The characters are mostly unbelievable and parodic – especially the cabinet minister Sir Allistair Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh) whose portrayal goes way beyond satire. The treatment of women is offensive – they are just amoral sex objects for the pirate ship’s disc jockeys. Whilst it is true that the real DJ’s on the real pirate ships were borderline-certifiable eccentrics the fictional characters that Curtis has created are improbable as well as dysfunctional. Seymour Hoffman shows his class in the one performance that is in any way memorable – but the rest are just going through the motions.

In Richard Curtis’s previous body of work there was never any need to explain the jokes – the humour was never forced and the situations rarely went completely over-the-top (except, perhaps, Colin Frissell’s silly but funny fantasy trip to Milwaukee in Love Actually!). In The Boat That Rocked the humour cannot be explained because it is either absent or so puerile that, for me anyway, it barely raised a smile - it is also, at times, iredeemingly vulgar. I generally subscribe to the view that nothing should be off-limits to poke fun at – but the parody of the Dunkirk “Little Ships” at the end of the film went a step too far for me. As Philip French in “The Observer” put it “Curtis has alighted on Dunkirk, a tragedy narrowly averted, which he reprises as mirthless, feelgood farce.”

I don’t understand how The Boat That Rocked could have happened. How Richard Curtis could have written such trash. How distinguished actors could have lowered their standards to appear in it. How the money men thought that it could be a success – and how I or anyone else could have allocated nearly two hours of our lives to watch such dross.