'Radioland Murders' is loud, transparent and witless

October 21, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Louder than a speeding bullet, louder than a powerful locomotive, louder than the end of the world in nuclear warfare, here's "Radioland Murders," which gives new meaning to the word . . . LOUD.

Ouch! Ooof! I staggered out, the echoes in my head going off like pinballs in a stainless steel gourd. I dreamed that night of . . . noise!

The movie, which I might add is almost completely charmless, chronicles the opening night of a fourth radio network out of Chicago in 1939 and is clotted with performers, producers, dancing cigarette girls, sponsors, gals Friday and a serial murderer. But it's about 90 percent guys on slippery leather soles racing down hallways with script pages in their hands and sliding around corners, frequently losing control and crashing into the dancing girls while shouting a torrent of witless wisecracks. Boy, is this ever funny, especially the seventh or eighth time.

The operative tonal descriptor is frantic. It's mile-a-minute, quip-a-second farce blown out to psychopathic dimensions, farce crazed and demented, farce gone homicidal. (Shouldn't Congress pass a quip tax? It would immeasurably improve most movies!)

I had no problems with the six murders that occur that night, or even the prosaic and thinly imagined motivation behind them, or the imminently guessable revelation of the murderer's identity. What I never connected with was the crazy idea that at the last moment the sponsor nixes all the scripts so that six hours of opening night national radio programming has to be rewritten with about a 7-second time delay between typewriter and microphone. That is what leads to countless visits to the writer's room, where a gaggle of scribes -- Bobcat Goldthwait, Robert Klein, Peter MacNicol, Harvey Korman, et al. -- may be glimpsed imitating monkeys randomly striking keys in search of Shakespeare. It then leads to "Radioland Murder's" signature sequence, a bellboy with pages for "Krok of the Jungle" fluttering out of his grip as he speeds toward the studio where the "Krok of the Jungle" cast stands before a big microphone with the old deer-in-the-headlights look in their eyes.

Mary Stuart Masterson is the nominal star as the gal Friday of radio station magnate General Whelan (Ned Beatty, ever professional). But she's so overwhelmed by the frenzy around her she looks like the proverbial wallflower at the orgy. Nobody else really emerges from the blur except for the chap playing her estranged writer-husband, Brian Benben, who: a) wants to win her back, and b) is the prime suspect in the murders, and c) does a fair amount of grueling corner-sliding himself -- all of this to very little effect.

The one comic idea in "Radioland Murders" is that this unsubtle, unattractive and, yes, loud sweat manufacturer had it in him to carry a movie on his shoulders. By the movie's end, so long in coming, one develops an active dislike for the hyper-frenetic Benben.

"Radioland Murders" hails from the long-dormant imagination of George Lucas, which may be why it opens with its only good gag, a visual trope that metamorphs a towering radio antenna into the famous starship shot that opened "Star Wars" all those years ago. Then the wit checks out. The writers are Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, who had good luck with Lucas on "American Graffiti," and not since ("Howard the Duck.") The director is Mel Smith, who showed a flair for knockabout farce in "The Tall Guy." But this isn't knockabout farce: it's knock-the-crud-outta-the-story farce, and Smith lets the pacing get away from him until all clarity is lost in the cacophony.

He also suffers from a syndrome called Musical Number Interruptus. By far the best thing in "Radioland Murders" is the loony send-up of '30s musical tradition, like big band numbers, Inkspot-type black quintets, even a Carmen Miranda south-of-ze-border routine. The great Rosemary Clooney warbles a few beautiful bars. But none of these numbers is ever allowed to progress from start to finish; we only get glimpses of them, and it's very very frustrating. With Clooney knocking the roof down, who on earth wants to get back to the ditsy little movie?

Hear Hunter's reviews

To hear Sun movie critic Stephen Hunter read a recent review, call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6250 after you hear the greeting.

"Radioland Murders"

Starring Mary Stuart Masterson and Brian Benben

Directed by Mel Smith

Released by Universal

PG

... **

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