Radio Days Review
There are a vast number of ways to start a review of a fairly mediocre Woody Allen film, all of which are more interesting than discussing the film itself. One could discuss why, exactly, Mia Farrow's career flopped spectacularly after her messy separation from Allen, and perhaps speculate as to whether she would have been cast in the film had she not been intimate with the director. Alternatively, there is some mileage to be derived from placing it in the canon of Allen's work between the 'early, funny' ones and the 'later, unfunny' ones. However, it's the film that is to be reviewed, slight and unremarkable though it is, and so it shall be discussed.
The plot is little more than a series of vaguely linked sketches, as it follows the Allen substitute Joe (a young Green, a long way from Sunnydale High) as he goes through some fairly mild rite-of-passage experiences, all accompanied by the omnipresent sound of the radio, home to such characters as the Masked Avenger (Shawn) and Biff Baxter (Daniels). Meanwhile, an interweaved plot follows the fortunes of Sally (Farrow), a spectacularly untalented ingenue who manages, through a combination of luck and loose morality, to sleep her way into the radio business, despite being a dancer by profession. And that's more or less it.
Allen went through something of a slump in the 1980s, with only Hannah and her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanours really standing out; instead, most of his films were preoccupied with his ongoing interest in Ingmar Bergman, a worthy but dull cinematic occupation. Although Radio Days isn't nearly as weak as some of his more ill-conceived projects of the time, it's a profoundly insignificant work, which vaguely touches on some interesting themes- the role of the family in a child's upbringing, specifically a working-class Jewish one, and the rise of radio as a source of entertainment- but, in its short running time, doesn't really develop them. Of course, Allen is too good a gagwriter not to include some hilariously odd moments of black comedy, the best being a scene where a courtship is interrupted by the broadcast of Orson Welles' War of the Worlds, but such touches are, unfortunately, few and far between, being replaced by heavy-handed attempts at poignancy that largely ring hollow.
The cast is fine, as usual in Allen's films, although it comes as a bit of a shock to realise that actors like Jeff Daniels and Danny Aiello are only in the film for literally a couple of minutes (and Allen is guilty of casting Aiello as a mobster for the umpteenth time, which is typecasting to an unfair degree for such an underrated actor). Farrow is irritating and flat in an unfocused part, but the film simply isn't significant enough for it to really grate; instead, it is best enjoyed as a self-indulgent exercise in reminiscing from a director who has made far more interesting, intelligent and downright hilarious films, before and since.
A mixed transfer is served up by MGM. In the various scenes set indoors, the picture is fine; colours are strong and vivid, and there is no evidence of print damage or grain. Unfortunately, the outdoor scenes seem incredibly grainy, to a noticeable extent, and it's disappointing to see such a recent film looking so weak at times.
Allen likes his films to be in mono, and so they are. While this may be an interesting artistic decision, it hardly leads to the most sonically exciting experiences; then again, there is no need for any kind of surround effects to be used here, and the presentation of the music and dialogue are both fine.
A trailer, which gives away most of the best bits, and should therefore be avoided until after the film has been watched. Nothing else, but then Allen is well known for refusing to watch his films after they've been completed; in the case of this one, it's not impossible to see why.
A slight, occasionally enjoyable but unremarkable comedy is released on a completely undistinguished disc, which means that this can only really be recommended to fans of the film and die-hard Allen fanatics (of whom there are a fair few, of course.) It's looking unlikely that any of his films will ever get a significantly better DVD release, but we can live in hope for something more interesting for Annie Hall or Manhattan....