Pirate Radio (2010)
Director: Richard Curtis
Pirate Radio is about two things: Pirate Radio and Coming of Age.
Thanks mostly to a well-chosen, if historically challenged, soundtrack, the Pirate Radio part works well, sometimes beautifully. The Coming of Age part works less than well, never rising above the mundane and occasionally sinking below it. Like a couple of more famous movies, Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous and Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (which I wrote about here), it’s a sort of semi-autobiographical tale of boyhood which doesn’t capture any of the significant qualities of an actual boyhood (It’s interesting, for instance, that, in these films, a boy’s first sexual experience is always a dewy, Hallmark-style experience, bereft of guilt, angst, fumbling around, or even basic horniness…how so many talented filmmakers have managed, over and over, to leave all of that out, says something about what the audience is primed to expect, but also about the unwillingness of the director/auteurs involved to challenge those, or any other, exepectations).
That leaves this movie, like those others, to stand and fall with the grownups.
On that level, it’s about as good as Almost Famous (to which it is also linked by Philip Seymour Hoffman in his curmudgeon mode–let’s just say the mode was fresher the first time around, playing Lester Bangs, than it is here) . Certainly there is no one as compelling as Patricia Arquette was in Boyhood. But given its essential lightheartedness, not to mention light-headedness, the movie probably benefits. The presence of anyone playing a real grown-up, as opposed to someone who has merely attained legal age, would sink this movie much faster than the stuffed shirts from the BBC manage to sink the ship on which most of it is set.
With that much of a wormhole in its heart, how good can a movie be?
Pretty good, actually, and that’s a testament to how great its subject is,and how much fun a few of the actors have chewing the scenery.
First and foremost among the latter is Kenneth Branagh, as the censorious fussbudget from hell. He plays it balls the wall, complete farce, and it works. He’s the closest thing to an actual human in the whole show and if it’s not a very attractive sort of human, you still might not mind being in a foxhole with him, as long as it was the foxhole at the end of the world.
The best single scene, though–one that nearly redeems the whole movie–is shared by Hoffman (at his best) and Rhys Ifans. They are playing the two coolest, most gifted DJs. Hoffman’s a super brash American (what Lester Bangs might have been, if he’d been a DJ). Ifan’s the super cool Brit (returned from exile, with all the additional cool that accrues to the prodigal). The tension between them is what the movie really should have been about. In any case, its value as a subplot is at least fully exploited in a scene where they start out one-upping each other in a series of trivialities that rings very true to life and end up balancing at the top of ship’s mast, their lives finally in real danger, each still determined not to be outdone–to be the big dog on this small, secluded island.
That scene, and its wonderful payoff, makes up for a lot: the cliches, the tired in-jokes, the broad overplaying balanced by the bland underplaying which each actor (except Branagh) dares not take over the top or under the floor, lest life break in, the fact that Curtis lets several other promising scenes play either way too long or just a little too short, unable to find a rhythm to match all that wonderful music or the confidence to simply bring it forward.
I’m not sure if these small but real virtues are enough to get me to watch it again some time.
Might get the soundtrack though.
And, hey, if you think this scene is as funny as it wants to be, you’ll probably like the movie better than I did.