Coming right after Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Woody Allen’s Radio Days (1987) may have seemed rather slight and lightweight at the time, but it’s a film that has stood the test of time well. Its seemingly casual nature masks a film of some complexity. There is no plot as such. Allen merely presents us with a look at one family in Rockaway Beach and their relationships with each other and the “golden age” of radio that both informs and sets the constant background for their lives. At the same time, Allen chooses to move back and forth from the family vignettes to provide a look into the behind-the-scenes world of the radio performers. When you realize that all this is contained in a film lasting a mere 85 minutes, the impressiveness of Allen’s very funny, yet almost impossibly nostalgic film is even greater. For my money, this is the best of Allen’s films in which he does not himself appear, even though he does provide the narration for the adult version of Joe (Seth Green).
The overall film, though blessed with Allen’s particular brand of humor (parents who can argue over which is the better ocean, the Atlantic or the Pacific), is probably the gentlest, warmest, most personal work in the Allen filmography. The characters of the parents—wonderfully played by Julie Kavner and Michael Tucker—are much less foolish than those in, say, Annie Hall (1977), or those referred to countless times by Allen in other films or in stand-up routines. One less remembers their silly bickering than their innate goodness and Allen’s narration about “the only time I ever saw my father and mother kiss,” which he notes made a particular occasion so special. All of the characters are observed with this kind of humanity, including the radio performers. The evocation of the era (nice touch bringing in Kitty Carlisle to sing “They’re Either Too Young, or Too Old”) and the role played by radio in everyone’s life is as close to perfect as you’re ever likely to see. It’s a true Allen masterpiece in a minor key.