Home Pge, Site Index, Search, Help

‘Radio Days’ (PG)

By Paul Attanasio
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 30, 1987

"Radio Days" returns Woody Allen to the constricted ambitions that, until "Hannah and Her Sisters," characterized his recent work -- whatever "Hannah" liberated in him was, apparently, liberated for one movie only. As always, you appreciate Allen's effortless satire, his seriousness of purpose and dedicated craftsmanship. But without a story or, for that matter, any theme but a kind of aimless nostalgia, you peel and peel away at it only to find, in the end, nothing.

As narrated by Allen in voice-over, the movie centers on a boy, Joe (Seth Green), growing up in Rockaway. As he remembers it, his '40s childhood was suffused with the pleasures of listening to the radio. Composed as a sort of collage, "Radio Days" crosscuts from Joe's contentious family to radio sketches, from family anecdotes to old broadcasting tales.

Bridging the gap is the vague resonance between two stories: Joe's aunt Bea (Dianne Wiest), who just wants to get married (and therefore can't), and Sally White (Mia Farrow), a cigarette girl who wants to make it in radio (and finally does). But while Allen's ear for mimicry is as sharp as ever (particularly in a bit satirizing a "Sports Legends" show), the radio stories and the family story aren't woven together in any meaningful way.

Music, too, might have held the movie together. But the period tunes (compiled by Dick Hyman) are mostly familiar; worse, you never feel that they're woven into these people's lives in the way that you did, say, in Herbert Ross' "Pennies From Heaven."

When he hits, you're stunned by how nimbly Allen rehabilitates old shtick comedy; but what's surprising about "Radio Days" is how little in it is surprising. Much of the humor in the movie is stupid and scatological (a kid brings a condom to kindergarten show and tell), much just pure vaudeville without any reinterpretive twist. The rabbi hits Joe. Dad asserts that only he can hit his own son, and hits Joe. To prove his point, each takes turns whacking Joe. And so forth.

The family, too, is just stale types: the father, failed at business (Michael Tucker) arguing with the hectoring, wisecracking Jewish mother (Julie Kavner); the overeating uncle (Josh Mostel); the spinster aunt. It's possible that Allen is sending up "Brighton Beach Memoirs," but it's more as if Allen's own creation, the chameleon Leonard Zelig, had wandered into a Neil Simon play and turned moviemaker.

As directed by Allen, the family scenes are curiously stilted, and the fine (if limited) work of Wiest, Kavner and Mostel is absorbed by Tucker, whose performance is so bad he becomes a kind of sponge. Like the rest of the cast, Farrow never has time to develop a rhythm, but she suffers rather more -- without enough space in the story, she seems anemic. And while Santo Loquasto's period sets are built in beautiful detail, and Carlo di Palma's lighting is painterly in the rich, Rembrandt style of Allen's old collaborator Gordon Willis, the look of the film is moody and leaden. They've made a piece of light whimsy (and light melancholy) look like "The Godfather," as if Joe's family were The Family.

"Radio Days' " jagged, elliptical style seems to have a thematic purpose -- this isn't merely a nostalgic movie, but a movie about nostalgia. As Allen rattles through his narration at a frantic pace, you get the sense of a man panicking to recover an ever elusive memory -- as if his forgetfulness reminds him that he, too, will someday be forgotten. The problem is that Allen's "radio days" are so immediately forgettable. Without life's heft, worrying about oblivion seems merely fussy.

"Radio Days" is rated PG and contains some profanity and sexual themes.

Copyright The Washington Post

Back to the top

Home Page, Site Index, Search, Help