Picks and Pans Review: Radio Days

updated 02/16/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/16/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

Fresh from his triumph with the complex contemporary relationships of Hannah and Her Sisters, Woody Allen offers a deceptively simple follow-up. At first glance, this episodic period film may seem old-fashioned and numbingly old hat (as the screen version of Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs is in fact). You needn't fear. Thoroughly beguiling, Radio Days is the richly romantic, poetic work of a mature artist at his peak. Here's a memory piece—written, directed and narrated by Allen (who doesn't appear onscreen)—about growing up in a Jewish neighborhood near Rockaway Beach in Queens in the 1940s. Allen's narrator tells us his fondest memories of the place are of when it rained. On those wet days, you could come home from school to spy through binoculars at suspected enemy aircraft or a zaftig neighbor or find a cozy spot by the radio. There, in the time before TV, you and your family could forget your troubles by turning on the radio to listen to Benny Goodman or Glenn Miller. Or you could imagine what face went with the bold voice of the Masked Avenger. Radio had taken hold in a way the splintered media of our present have not. For a time, Americans responded as one. With the invaluable help of cameraman Carlo Di Palma and production designer Santo Loquasto, Allen lets us see all the colors of his remembered and imagined past. The result is a worthy candidate for everyone's 1987 10-Best list. There's a glamorous nightlife featuring a tough-talking cigarette girl, deliciously played by Mia Farrow. And there's the darker side in the reports of personal tragedies that left a nation in tears. With radio, the everyday problems of Mom (a vividly funny Julie Kavner), Dad (L.A. Law's Michael Tucker) and Uncle Abe (a hilariously addled Josh Mostel) didn't loom so ominously. Aunt Bea, always fogbound in her search for the right man, was another matter. As played by Dianne Wiest, an Oscar favorite for Hannah, she's nearly her own Our Gal Sunday radio serial. Wiest is funny and touching. Many of the Allen stock company players, including Danny Aiello and Tony Roberts, deliver telling cameos. The most affecting comes from Diane Keaton, absent from Allen films for eight years. At the film's climactic New Year's party, the radiant Keaton appears onstage to sing Cole Porter's You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To. The depth of feeling she puts into that song perfectly matches Allen's yearning for a vanished period of innocence. "For me it was a wonderful time," says Allen. Thanks to Radio Days, it's a wonderful time for all of us. (PG)

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