George Lucas collaborated previously with screenwriters Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz on “Howard the Duck,” and in terms of recalling that fiasco, “Radioland Murders” does pretty much everything but quack. A wild farce with more than 100 speaking parts, pic offers scant appeal to the MTV generation and is too frenetic for anyone who might appreciate its Golden-Age-of-radio setting. The result should be a static-ridden, one-note box office tune.
As a rule, you know a movie is in trouble when psycho comic Bobcat Goldthwaite — among the lengthy roster of celebrity cameos — provides one of the movie’s more restrained performances.
Billed as a “romantic mystery-comedy,””Radioland” wants to be a cross between “Clue” and a Marx Bros. movie, with perhaps a pinch of “Radio Days” and the short-lived TV show “On the Air” thrown in for good measure.
The result, however, is a well-intentioned but annoyingly shrill exercise virtually devoid of romance, suspense or wit. Director Mel Smith (“The Tall Guy”) struggles to make sense of the scattershot screenplay, written by “Howard” and “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” scribes Huyck and Katz as well as the team of Jeff Reno and Ron Osborn, working from a story by Lucas.
Set in 1939, all the action takes place during the debut night of a new radio network, WBN, emanating from a Chicago studio. One of the writers (Brian Benben) is seeking to woo back his estranged wife (Mary Stuart Masterson), the owner’s assistant, in the midst of the startup chaos.
Soon, however, matters become a bit grim, as various staffers turn up dead, each time preceded by a cackling, “Shadow”-like voice coming from somewhere in the building. Roger (Benben) soon finds himself a suspect, trying to solve the mystery while everyone else struggles to keep the station on the air.
Sadly, that synopsis is more coherent than the movie seems most of the time, as the narrative caroms between scenes slavishly re-creating the radio shows and all the behind-the-scenes mayhem using fast-cut editing techniques.
Though the period feel may inspire comparison to Lucas’ early directorial effort “American Graffiti” (which Huyck and Katz also co-wrote), this effort only resembles that film in its generous use of nostalgic songs. For the most part, “Radioland” feels like a theme-park ride without an exit — rolling out a non-stop barrage of stale sight gags and snappy repartee that’s both cliche-ridden and sorely lacking in snap.
Masterson gets to be plucky and not much else, while Benben plays a character similar to his persona in the HBO series “Dream On” and discovers that the role is easier to endure in that less-expansive format.
Beyond that, a dizzying array of performers (including Robert Klein, George Burns, Harvey Korman, Peter MacNicol and Christopher Lloyd) show up for the party and find themselves with practically nothing to do.
Tech credits are generally impressive, though the Industrial Light & Magic effects and stunts seem a bit much, given the storyline, and the jazzy, non-stop score grows equally tiresome. If the movie itself laments a lost era, any youngsters inclined to judge the period based on “Radioland” will doubtless be glad that television came along.