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‘Radio Days’ (PG)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 30, 1987

We take you to Rockaway Beach and Woody Allen's "Radio Days," a slight but sweet pastiche of boyhood memories, big-band melodies and Magnavox fantasies of the '40s -- when viewers were listeners, and little bald men could be superheroes.

The story's reminiscent of Neil Simon's "Brighton Beach Memoirs," but this isn't another growing-up-Jewish-at-the-beach movie. It's even less. In his 15th effort as writer-director, Allen tries the nigh impossible -- to recreate, with moving pictures, the mind's-eye magic of radio.

Cross-cutting between the family and their favorite personalities, "Radio Days" feels more like Jean Shepherd's nostalgic "A Christmas Story" than the New York neuroticism we've come to expect from Allen, who narrates but never appears. In Shepherd's folksy and coherent narrative, the pre-adolescent protagonist wanted a Red Ryder BB gun. Here, Allen's 12-year-old radio buff is obsessed with his radio hero, The Masked Avenger, and dreams of obtaining a secret decoder ring.

He and his little pals use the money they've been collecting -- for Israel -- to buy the decoder ring. Mother blames the deed on too much radio and the rabbi gives the 12-year-old hero Joe (Seth Green) a good smack and a lecture. Joe responds with a line he heard on the radio -- "You speak the truth, my faithful Indian companion|" -- and earns more smacks all round.

Cut to the Stork Club, where a famous talk show host (David Warrilow) woos an ambitious cigarette girl (Mia Farrow) up on a fantastical Manhattan rooftop. "Wow, that was fast," she says later. "Probably helped I had the hiccups." Farrow, pixilating in one of the film's fuller parts, shares the screen with an ensemble -- make that a mob -- of Wood-Stock: Diane Keaton, Jeff Daniels, Wallace Shawn, Danny Aiello, Tony Roberts, Roberts' father, Farrow's kids, etc.

Green, a scruffy, perpetually perplexed redhead, looks the part of a pre-teen Woody. But most of the characters are never more than caricatures. Only Dianne Wiest, one of Hannah's sisters, overcomes her role's limitations as Aunt Bea, a dreamy, myopic beauty whose search for Mr. Right finds her abandoned by her date, who runs off on the night of Orson Welles' fateful Mercury Theater broadcast -- leaving her to be undone by Martian hooligans.

Childhood anecdotes and charming vignettes are set against bright-light, big-city sets, a-dazzle with beautiful players. All that doesn't disguise the emptiness at the center of "Radio Days," which misses the momentum that comes with a plot. David Byrne's collection of tabloid tales in "True Stories" had the same thin feel -- acceptable for a first film, but we expect more from a master. -- Rita Kempley.

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