What an inglorious pity. Here is a movie, set in an Art Deco-designed radio station circa 1939 that features some memorable voices tucked inside memorable faces. George Burns. Rosemary Clooney. Billy Barty. And for all those moments combined that they’re on screen—far less than Brian Benben as one of the station’s writers and Mary Stuart Masterson as his will-she-or-won’t-she-divorce-him wife—“Radioland Murders” can’t even give them proper respect by way of a few unbroken shots amidst the insanity that ends up getting all the attention.
Because this film is obsessed with itself. It tries to cajole you into liking it, by having the first eight minutes rush through the premiere night of WBN’s attempt to present itself mightily on the national airwaves, where a huge cast is introduced as if they were all live-action cartoons injected with the innate ability to fire off rat-a-tat 1930s-style dialogue without a thought backward as to what they said, clearly without any knowledge or concept of making it funny.
Essentially, this station, this movie, is run by George Lucas, imagining what the atmosphere must have been like all the way back then when radio was the way for the nation to go, listening to various programs that relied heavily on writing, schtick, drama that could be felt through the efforts of a tightly-wound procession of actors, sound effects, and gripping stories that were the reasons for the radio coming back to life each week. Lucas is credited with the story and naturally as an executive producer, so it’s clear by some of the stagnant comedy, the floundering attempts to make this huge cast comical, that director Mel Smith, try as he does, is partial witness to a slow-motion accident that’s stretched out to a little under two hours.
The murders in question that color the antics of this auspicious-turned-wacky night are preceded by a disembodied voice that booms throughout the theater and across the nation with cryptic messages. At first, it’s inconsequential. Merely a trumpeter felled by the poisoned alcohol in his silver flask that’s enough to shake up the cast of this marathon night of programming. The audience watching the acts are completely clueless the entire time because even when everything looks like it’s about to fail miserably, the illusion of organization, of timing, of keeping folks entertained must go on. But Lucas and his screenwriters have the problem of exuding too much energy in those first eight minutes, introducing such players as Benben—who sounds like a frantic Tom Hanks, though with a more drawn-out twang—along with Harvey Korman, Robert Klein, Peter MacNicol (all in the writers room), Michael McKean, Larry Miller, Stephen Tobolowsky and others who try because this may be a disaster, but it’s a rare opportunity for them to work with Lucas and be a part of an ever-shrinking vision.
It’s a surprise that “Radioland Murders” would have too much, especially with it being set in an alternate 1939 universe, but there’s too much that’s not really entertaining. As murder after murder takes place, the cops are called in and led by Lieutenant Cross (Michael Lerner) who tries his best to piece together what’s going on, all the while looking gruff and obviously what his last name stands for. He’s just that, while head writer Roger (Benben’s part) tries to evade him when he’s suddenly accused of murder after he’s found in a compromising position that calls him out for it, though as it is with any murder mystery, that’s never the case. The distractions need to be brought out first before ultimate truths can be learned.
The real shame, besides the tedium, is the waste of Billy Barty, Rosemary Clooney, and even George Burns, who gets in many great lines, despite what the main sponsor, Bernie King (Brion James), says before he dies of nitrous oxide poisoning. As Burns stands there, choosing his words as steadily as they come out, you can still see his mind working, considering the angle of his joke, how he wants to surprise the audience. Now it’s true enough that every comedian has his material memorized, but Burns knew that in order to get them, all you needed was your voice and for him, his voice was the kind that implored people to listen, especially in his later years. Almost like a grandfather who had a few verbal tricks at hand and knew not to rush them.
Billy Barty gets a few bars of a song in as another murder takes place below the stage, but the camera should have had a legal obligation to stay on Rosemary Clooney. Her elegance, her class, as she sings ‘That Old Feeling’, is enough to offset any of the mounting frustration that comes from the rest of what’s offered. But the insistence of Smith to intercut her performance with Roger being chased by the cops is a sin in itself. She simply stands there, letting her voice ring out, and that’s a good-enough performance. She deserved more of the time in here than she was actually given.
The most tireless member of the troupe is Billy Budget (Scott Michael Campbell), who runs from the control booth to the writers room trying to get the scripts for the next acts that are barely written seconds before they’re supposed to go on the air and at one point, one of the writers (Bobcat Goldthwait) wields a baseball bat against him to get him running back to the booth. Imagine Billy as most of us watching this, constantly being worn down by all that’s going on, all the moments that we see in which we try to find something to laugh at. It doesn’t happen. And Billy fares better than us.