July 27, 2007

Radio Days (1987)
Grade: 65/100

Director: Woody Allen
Stars: Julie Kavner, Woody Allen, Mia Farrow

What it's about. Set circa 1940 to 1944. The narrator (Woody Allen) looks back on his childhood in a Jewish neighborhood of Rockaway, New York. Young Woody is played by Seth Green. His mother is Julie Kavner, his father is Michael Tucker, and they live with several mildly eccentric relatives, including fish-loving Josh Mostel, his wife Renee Lipton, their snooping daughter Joy Newman, and old-maid-to-be Aunt Bea (Dianne Wiest). All schedule their lives around radio shows, since television wouldn't arrive until after World War II.

Radio Days also explores the backstage productions of radio shows, which allows small roles for noted actors Wallace Shawn, Jeff Daniels, Diane Keaton, and William H. Macy. Allen's then-lover, Mia Farrow, is featured as a stupid yet ambitious radio wannabe. Danny Aiello has a small bit as (what else) a mobster.

How others will see it. Radio's glory years predates the memory of most viewers. This removes the nostalgia factor, but it does provide a glimpse into the era. While Allen is the narrator, the subplots often instead involve Wiest's luckless search for a husband, or Farrow's attempts to leverage her feminine charm into a radio career. These subplots keep Radio Days from being a copy of the superior A Christmas Story, which also featured a child's quest for a radio show decoder ring.

Radio Days is more about the golden age of radio, and less about the adventures of the younger Woody.

Classic movie fans of any age, and Woody Allen fans in particular, will enjoy the ensemble cast and not care that most characters, including young Woody, aren't particularly well developed. They also won't notice that the many small arguments never have any heat behind them, like real arguments do. That would spoil their intended charm.

How I felt about it. The message behind Radio Days is that the lost era of live radio was something wonderful. The shows had an innocence now absent, etc. Of course, it takes rose-colored glasses to see things this way. Eyes are shut to the millions of Axis-related deaths in Europe and Asia, or the blacks relegated to different neighborhoods and schools. Out of sight, out of mind. Most radio shows were presumably mediocre, just as most television shows are today.

But times have certainly changed. Radio is still big today, but it is now dominated by shock jocks who fill their shows with sexual innuendo, toilet humor, and belittlement of racial or political groups conveniently distinct from their primary audience.

Family life is also different. Kids rarely grow up today in a house with numerous older relatives. They might not even get to play much with peer children beyond school hours. The bonds between family members appear weaker today, and this, rather than the decline of radio, is the real loss from the long-ago World War II era.