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MOVIE REVIEW : The Real Mystery in 'Radioland'

October 21, 1994|PETER RAINER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Radioland Murders" never lets up and never shuts up. It's wearying--kind of like staring at a gasping hamster on an exercise wheel for two hours. The freneticism of this comedy-mystery is the work of highly talented people but there is a basic mistake at its core: The filmmakers think that a fast-paced movie must constantly be fast. They don't understand that a movie appears to move like a streak only when the pace is slowed from time to time. In "Radioland Murders," the illusion of nonstop speed is confused with its reality.

Reality in this movie is everywhere else in short supply. Set in 1939 in Chicago during the opening night of a new radio network, WBN, the film takes place almost entirely inside the studio as employees are lopped off one by one by a mysterious deep-voiced intruder who announces his murders over the air. The lead suspect is the show's head writer, Roger (Brian Benben), who is trying to win back his estranged wife, Penny (Mary Stuart Masterson), the station owner's secretary, while attempting to solve the crime.

Roger is far more interested in whodunit than we are. Since the clues are as scattershot as everything else in this film, the entire murder mystery plot resembles a "Hellzapoppin" for the short-attention-span generation. The only consolation is that, as the fun-less, knockabout subplots pile up, they just as quickly disappear. If you don't like the way the movie is going, don't worry--it will soon be going somewhere else.

In a larger sense, though, "Radioland Murders" is unvarying--not since "1941" has there been a movie that so throttled you with its hyperactivity. (And "1941" at least had a few visual splendors.) The film begins like a faster-than-a-speeding-bullet trailer and after about a half hour, your worst fears begin to take hold--the whole movie is going to be this way.

The cast is so talented that you keep waiting for the talent to kick in. But the script by Willard Huyck, Gloria Katz, Jeff Reno and Ron Osborn doesn't allow for what the actors can do; the effect is like listening to a beautifully sung song played at chattering chipmunk speed. Besides Masterson and Benben, whose first (and hopefully not last) starring movie role this is, Ned Beatty, Anita Morris, Michael Lerner and Stephen Tobolowsky turn up. A few of them make tiny, tart impressions. George Burns has a cameo as a stand-up comic--he's still a gas--and Christopher Lloyd, as the sound effects man, is in his best wild-man mode. Michael McKean, as the orchestra conductor, has a transported-by-his-own-ego grin that's a real goof.

The period re-creation is in the shiny-ersatz style, and the director Mel Smith (who made the great, underrated "Tall Guy" with Jeff Goldblum) reaches for a hefty nostalgia. But he doesn't have much of a feel for American pop Golden Age stuff. "Radioland Murders" isn't cynical--maybe it would be better if it was. Instead, it's just a squawking yesteryear contraption. It feels a lot longer than its 112 minutes.

* MPAA rating: PG, for mild language, some farcical violence and brief nudity. Times guidelines: It includes killing by laughing gas and a man clinging to a skyscraper's ledge.

'Radioland Murders'

Brian Benben: Roger

Mary Stuart Masterson: Penny

Ned Beatty: Gen. Whelan

Stephen Tobolowsky: Max Applewhite

A Universal Pictures release of a Lucasfilm Ltd. production. Director Mel Smith. Producers Rick McCallum, Fred Roos. Executive producer George Lucas. Screenplay by Willard Huyck, Gloria Katz, Jeff Reno, Ron Osborn. Cinematographer David Tattersall. Editors Paul Trejo. Costumes Peggy Farrell. Music Joel McNeely. Production design Gavin Bocquet. Set decorator Jim Ferrell. Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes.

* In general release throughout Southern California.

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