Radio Days Review


Radio Days comes at an interesting time within the Woody Allen canon. That output that follows it (excepting Crimes and Misdemeanors) for the next several years is generally regarded as a series of high-concept, well-intentioned misfires. Preceding Radio Days, of course, were Hannah and Her Sisters, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Broadway Danny Rose, and Zelig—all unique, successful films that are noteworthy for their proclivity to push boundaries. There’s none of that in Radio Days, nor is there the high-concept seriousness of his late 1980s/early 1990s films. No, Radio Days is arguably Woody Allen’s simplest movie in a decade or more, and it works both because of and in spite of that simplicity.

Like Broadway Danny Rose, Radio Days is basically one big flashback. That said, we never see the man (Allen himself) recounting us this story. But it’s autobiographical in nature, so we spend a great deal of time with his younger self (none other than Seth Green). This man Joe is simply here to reminisce with us about two things: his wacky family and the radio. It’s the Great Depression, and Joe’s entire extended family lives under one roof in dreary Rockaway, Queens. His mother and father (Julie Kavner and Michael Tucker) are serial arguers. His uncle brings home fish every day. His aunt Bea (Dianne Wiest) desperately wants a husband.

The thing that brings the all together—and arguably the thing that gets Joe through his childhood—is the radio. His favorite show is The Masked Avenger (though he’s a little disappointed when he learns the man who plays the hero isn’t a dashing Clark Gable type, but rather Wallace Shawn). His parents and relatives have their favorite shows, as well, and we get to know a few of the stars of that era.

The film is almost plotless. There’s very little conflict to speak of, nor is there much cohesion to older Joe’s tales, other than the facts that they relate to the radio and involve the same ten or so individuals. One of the radio personalities (though that’s perhaps a stretch) is Sally White (Mia Farrow), a cigarette girl at a club who sleeps around hoping her next sugar daddy will give her the big break she’s so desperately after. She doesn’t exactly have a voice for radio (putting it mildly), which makes her subplot one of Radio Days‘ most amusing. That said, the tissue that connects her to Joe’s world is extremely thin, and whenever Farrow is onscreen, one can’t help but wonder if it was worth moving heaven and earth for Woody to get his love into this particular motion picture.

The material dealing with young Joe and his family, though, is gold. One of the great unsung heroes over the course of Woody Allen’s career is his long-time casting director Juliet Taylor. She’s worked on every film of his since 1975’s Love and Death, but the crew of actors she assembled for Radio Days was simply perfect. Featuring many unknowns (including little Seth Green—a sensational stand-in for a young Allen), you feel like this could be a real Queens family. The stars, of course, are a different story, but they all acquit themselves well, and there’s even a cameo late in the film that will bring a smile to even Scrooge’s face (as long as Scrooge is an Annie Hall fan…)

Ultimately, Radio Days doesn’t have as compelling a hook as so many of Allen’s other 1980s films do. But while it meanders, it’s never anything less than endearing. It could be argued, in fact, that Radio Days is the ubiquitous director’s sweetest film.

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