Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Thursday, March 28, 2019

WHY DO I OWN THIS?: Radioland Murders (1994)

The overwhelming majority of films George Lucas has had a hand in shows his love of the retro aesthetic. It’s evident in the boomer nostalgia of “American Graffiti,” the classic serial homages in “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones,” and even in the fairy tale settings of “Willow” and “Strange Magic.” So it’s not surprising Lucas would have an interest in the vintage radio programs of the thirties and forties. What is surprising is that Lucas convinced a major movie studio to spend 15 million dollars on an extended love letter to the beyond-antiqued format of radio. Conceived by Lucas around the same time as “American Graffiti,” its premise retro even then, “Radioland Murders” would simmer in Development Hell until the early nineties. Unsurprisingly, a screwball comedy homage about the magic of radio would fail to connect with Generation X audiences. After bombing at the box office, “Radioland Murders” would fade quickly from memory. So why do I own it?

The year is 1939 and a brand new radio station is opening in Chicago. WBN is having its share of problems on opening night. All the scripts are being re-written at the last minute, from a writer staff that is over-stressed and underpaid. The owner is determined to impress potential sponsors. Head writer Richard Nederson and assistant director Penny Hendersen are married but are planing on divorcing, which only adds to the stress of the situation. The night gets harder for everyone when people begin dying. A trumpet player dies of an apparent poisoning. One of the directors is found hanged. Soon, it becomes apparent a murderer is afoot. And Richard is being framed for the crime.

Not content being a homage to one bygone genres, “Radioland Murders” is also a throwback to the screwball comedies of the thirties and forties. Drawing a lot of inspiration from Abbott and Costello flick, “Who Done It?,” “Radioland Murders” manages to successfully capture the particular atmosphere of that time and place. There's fast-paced dialogue, belligerent sexual tension between the male and female leads, lots of broad slapstick, and a murder/mystery plot resolved in the goofiest way possible. Contributing largely to this aesthetic is an excellent production design, which is probably where most of that budget went. The costumes, as well as the look and feels of all the sets, perfectly capture the appearance of forties cinema.

George Lucas spent most of the eighties more as a hands-on producer/idea-man than an actual director. That wouldn't change with “Radioland Murders,” as actual directorial duties would be handled over to British slapstick specialist Mel Smith. Smith seems to be in his element here. “Radioland Murders” is pretty amusing, for the most part. Scott Michael Campbell's Billy, the station's pageboy, is constantly being abused by the various circumstances in the film, a good contrast to his endlessly upbeat attitude. The foley man, played by an entertainingly eccentric Christopher Lloyd, is constantly up to weird business in a dark room. A big sequence devoted to Billy Barty singing “That Old Black Magic” goes nicely off the rails. One of the funniest scenes has the scripts for a soap opera and a jungle adventure show being mixed up, the actresses rolling with it without pause. Not all the slapstick works. The big physical gags tend to overstay their welcome. A scene involving a fire hose and another where Brian Benben swings off a huge sign are a little too much.

A big reason why “Radioland Murders” works is its extremely game cast. Brian Benben has the exact quality ideal for this type of comedy, goofy but never mugging, relatable but never boring. He also has nice chemistry with Mary Stuart Masterson, who similarly seems like a spitfire, brassy broad right out of the time period. The supporting cast is peppered with recognizable names. Michael Lerner is hilarious as a no-nonsense police detective, unaware of how ridiculous he has. Bobcat Goldthwait brings his nicely high-strung act to the role of one of the writers. Jeffrey Tambor is amusingly ridiculous as a philandering director. Dylan Baker got some laughs as an inexperienced detective way out of his element. Stephen Tobolowsky has a nice dry streak suited to this material. Aside from familiar faces like Ned Beatty, Michael McKean, and Corbin Bernsen, the film also includes cameos from actual radio stars like George Burns and Rosemary Clooney.

Why Do I Own This?: We finally reach the point in the existence of Film Thoughts and my Why Do I Own This? column where I'm covering stuff I bought specifically to review for this blog. Back in 2015, I did a George Lucas Director Report Card and I originally planned it to be more ambitious. I wanted to also cover “Red Tails,” that “Clone Wars” animated movie, and, yes, “Radioland Murders.” As usually happens, I ran out of time and ended up cutting a few reviews. This kind of thing happens all the time, if you hadn't guessed.

Ultimately, though, I don't regret owning “Radioland Murders.” Yes, it's not a super memorable movie nor is it an overlooked masterpiece. However, it is a pretty amusing throwback to a long ago format and genres nobody thinks much about anymore. It is a fluffy and pleasant experience that can be easily enjoyed. Onto the “Keep” pile it goes! [7/10]

No comments: