We wanted to see Restrepo yesterday, but the AC wasn’t working when we got there and we couldn’t take the 90-degree-plus heat, so we headed home and I surfed the movies on demand channels on our TV. I wound up with Pirate Radio, which seemed to fit the bill since I was in the mood for something light by then.
Pirate Radio is based in reality the way a kite is based wherever its holder is standing at the moment. This live-action cartoon celebrates the power of rock and roll and the lives of a few lucky (and fictional) boy-men and one token lesbian aboard a ship (also fictional) anchored off the coast of Britain in 1966 to evade broadcast laws. The ship’s DJs, lightly managed by Quentin (Bill Nighy), the Brian Epstein-ish businessman behind it all, take turns blasting out rock music 24 hours a day to a British populace portrayed as starved for the infusion.
Like the ship, the movie is mostly a vehicle for the music, some of which is sublime. Watching in my living room was just the ticket, since I got to sing along with Leonard Cohen on “So Long, Marianne” and Aaron Neville on “Tell It Like It Is.” But Pirate Radio also unloads a barrage of self-flattering baby-boomer nostalgia, ginning up that era’s exhilarating but naïve commitment to the half-baked notion of an anti-establishment revolution.
Most of the capital-C characters aren’t much more than a couple of personality traits and a collection of period outfits, but Nighy’s spacey aristocratic cool is just right for Quentin, who refers at one point to his own “customary torpor.” Philip Seymour Hoffman has a few nice moments in inspirational gonzo mode and a spectacular slo-mo bit at the end when he hurtles to the surface from the sinking boat, breaching like a whale. (Well, sure, it’s a body double, but he gets the close-up at the end.) He plays The Count, an American DJ who’s cock of the walk until a new rooster struts in and they fight for what winds up being a shared spot at the top. Rhys Ifans fills out his purple velvet jacket nicely as The Count’s rival, the wonderful Rhys Darby is lovably awkward as a DJ who, as he puts it, comes across well on radio but not so well in real life, and Emma Thompson nails the look and airy cool of a swinging ’60s London bird in her brief but enjoyable cameo. I guess her ex, Kenneth Branagh, is good too as the villain, the main government wet blanket intent on putting the ship back in dry dock, but he seems to have come out of another, even more comically exaggerated movie—or maybe a Tom and Jerry cartoon. Just to give you an idea, he has a Hitler mustache and his right-hand man is named Twatt, a name he uses every chance he gets.
Writer-director Richard Curtis (the writer-director of Love Actually and the writer of Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, and the Bridget Jones movies) brings his usual snappy patter and instantly likeable types to this story, which is loosely built around an audience-surrogate innocent named Carl. Carl is just an observer, a teenager whose mother (Thompson) sent him to summer on the boat after he got in trouble at school. (“Spectacular mistake!” chortles Quentin.) Two mysteries about Carl are the plot’s main macguffins: Whether he’ll ever manage to get laid and what mum was thinking when she packed him off to the boat. We don’t much care about the answer to either—and neither, apparently, does Curtis, since one is unconvincing and the other’s anticlimactic.
In case that’s not enough hokey manufactured conflict for you, there’s also a quickie wedding, a lot of cross-cutting between the happy crew on the ship and the dastardly dudes who are trying to shut them down, and a Titanic-lite ending. It’s all pretty silly, but if you’re in the mood for silly, it’ll do.
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.