Woody Allen’s one film per year pace leaves a lot of room for experimentation. A lesser film by Allen can be overlooked because it’s only one of so many dozen. The ability for experimentation is a positive thing. We aren’t likely to haven gotten films like Zelig without it. On the other hand, some films can feel a bit phoned in. Here in Radio Days, Allen has an interest he’s looking to explore, the days of his youth in particular. We’re given a series of what are effectively vignettes with a loose binding. Radio Days explores life in the early 1940s and the way that radio’s presence had an impact. It’s hardly a drama, but it’s hardly a comedy either.
There are two main divisions in the vignettes. We get the narrator’s family and an entirely separate section of Mia Farrow playing an aspiring radio actress. For the narrator’s family, the humor is a mix of a slapstick knocking around of the narrator as a young boy and an observation of their silliness. They are fairly religious Jews (who would have guessed that?), and they discuss fasting and the sabbath. Naturally they spend their time bickering. One wants to find a husband. The narrator’s father is always hatching schemes to get rich, and his mother is always turning them down.
Farrow’s side of things has her playing a young and uncultured actress. She bumbles her way up the business. In just about every case, the vignettes begin with some prompt. There’s a new man, there’s a new object of desire, there’s a new problem. This isn’t exactly an issue - having an immediate problem to address is a pretty standard impetus for a story, but in Radio Days nothing exactly feels like it naturally comes about. The stories are random and never feel fulfilling. We get vague endings (an Allen standard) or perhaps nothing at all.
The biggest problem here is that the humor comes from these characters’ unhappiness. They joke about how they’re unhappy, they joke about wanting to be a part of the excitement on the radio. The implication is that of course they’re happy, they’re just fooling around and day dreaming a bit, but this never actually feels true. Their lives are a little sad. The father is embarrassed to tell his son that he works as a taxi driver. The Aunt can’t find a husband, and she can’t even find anything else to devote her life to. The narrator’s mother and father are ‘happy enough’ - the mother even talks about it. It isn’t an eye toward a sad truth, it’s an inability to point out what’s humorous within these peoples’ sad lives.
This film does not manage to charm in the way that it wants to. Perhaps it isn’t looking to be a stellar comedy, but rather some in between - a tour of the 1940s, a tour of radio’s golden days, and some bickering families all the while. As it is, nothing comes out strong. Radio is a cheap thread used to tie these pieces together, and these pieces aren’t particularly interesting. In the end, we haven’t learned much about the time, and we haven’t even met some people interesting enough to hold our attention.