PopGap #28: Radioland Murders (1994)
One of the most common failures of homage is selective memory. Too-often, filmmakers who set out to intentionally recreate a classic genre and style get caught up in replicating the most prominent tics from their source of inspiration, and forget the important connective tissue that makes the big moments work. While the highlights are what linger most powerfully in our memories, it's often the slower, less flashy story and character moments between the peaks that give them their significance. The Baby Huey cartoon at the beginning of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is a case-in-point: in his tribute to the zany animated comedies of Tex Avery, Robert Zemeckis crafted a headache-inducing whirlwind of action that was all aggressive sound effects and in-your-face slapstick, completely missing the careful pacing and rhythms that make the gags fun and funny in the original cartoons. Mel Smith's Radioland Murders, an homage to the screwball comedies of the 1930s, doesn't just tiptoe ominously around the edge of this very same trap, it starts waist-deep in, and just barely lifts itself out.
As the opening night of a new radio network is beset with problems — staff conflicts, last-second rewrites, and, most inconveniently, a series of murders — secretary Penny Henderson (Mary Stuart Masterson) frantically tries to hold the show together, despite her estranged husband, head writer Roger (Brian Benben), becoming the prime suspect. Radioland Murders gets off to such a hectic start in establishing its fast-talking, eccentric 1939 showbiz workplace, and introducing its huge ensemble cast, that it seems as if Smith is attempting to distract the audience from all of the thin and implausible premises at its foundation. Unlike Joel and Ethan Coen's excellent screwball pastiche The Hudsucker Proxy, released earlier the same year, Radioland Murders relentlessly pursues the characteristic snappy dialog, crazy pratfalls and broad personality of that style but forgets to include its own jokes, ideas, or a plot worthy of all the mayhem.
Masterson makes a solid anchor as the only sane person at the studio, but she is overbalanced by the gratingly self-conscious Benben, and for the first half-hour there's a danger that Radioland Murders will spin itself around the solitary Masterson into an uncontrollable frenzy of mugging and noise. When the great Michael Lerner — who can create a broadly comic result with a steady low-effort glare — shows up to investigate the murders, he and Masterson together begin steadily working Radioland Murders out of its feedback loop of canned zaniness. By the last 40 minutes, Smith has finally figured out how to channel Radioland Murders' momentum, coming up with enough good jokes to pass the six-laugh test and even making earlier annoying characters, like Scott Michael Campbell's overeager pageboy Billy, somewhat charming. While neither Benben's unappealing lead performance nor the contrived central murder mystery in Radioland Murders are redeemed, the movie overall feels like a mild success by the end.
Although most of the colorful ensemble cast — including Ned Beatty, Brion James, Stephen Tobolowsky, Michael McKean, Corbin Bernsen, Bobcat Goldthwait, Anita Morris, Jeffrey Tambor, Larry Miller, Christopher Lloyd, Harvey Korman, Dylan Baker, Peter MacNicol, Robert Klein, Candy Clark, and Bo Hopkins — is underused, appearances from a handful of radio-era and vaudeville veterans is a welcome touch, giving George Burns, Billy Barty and Rosemary Clooney their final roles in a major motion picture.
Radioland Murders was brought to my Potluck Film Fest by Flickcharter Mike Seaman, who can be found on Flickchart under the username Celldweller7. He ranks it on his chart at #372 / 2329 (84%), making it his fourth favorite Comedy Thriller out of 27. Radioland Murders ranked on my Flickchart at #2209 (43%), putting it at #16 on my chart of 26 Comedy Thrillers.
My Top 5 Comedy Thrillers
Notes on Radioland Murders (1994)
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