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Film review: Radioland Murders

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 25 1994 12:00 a.m. MDT

Door-slamming, destruction farce is one of the most difficult forms of movie comedy to pull off . . . in fact, I'm not sure anyone has done it really well since the Marx Brothers.

Think of "Clue" or Steven Spielberg's "1941."

And now add to the list, George Lucas' "Radioland Murders." (He co-wrote and executive produced the film.)

Not that "Radioland Murders" doesn't have some funny stuff — it does. But it takes a good half-hour or so for the movie's humor to catch up with its hyper energy level. And though the film does get better as it goes along, there's a lot of audience patience expended by that time.

The story, which seems secondary to the film's sense of chaos, takes place against the backdrop of a Chicago radio station's attempt to create a fourth network in 1939, complete with a variety of programming played out before a live audience over the course of one lengthy evening.

The central characters are Roger and Penny (Brian Benben and Mary Stuart Masterson). He's the station's head writer and she's the secretary to station owner Gen. Whalen (Ned Beatty).

During the hectic premiere night, Roger is cranking out last-minute rewrites and trying to talk Penny out of divorce proceedings, which she is threatening because she believes he has had an affair with the station's star singer and bombshell Claudette (the late Anita Morris).

Meanwhile a series of programs crosses the stage (complete with parodies of everything from "The Shadow" to Spike Jones to the Andrews Sisters to . . . well, you name it), as a sinister voice periodically booms out strange limericks that immediately precede a string of murders.

The ensemble supporting cast is loaded with familiar faces, including, to name just a few, Christopher Lloyd as the wacky sound man, Michael McKean as the loopy band leader, Corbin Bernsen as the pompous announcer, and, as Roger's co-writers, Harvey Korman, Robert Klein and Bobcat Goldthwait. Not to mention brief cameos by George Burns and Rosemary Clooney.

Oddly, considering the parade of "knowns" on hand here, some of the biggest laughs come from the very "unknown" Dylan Baker, whose deadpan one-liners as a dimwitted police detective, are hilarious.

Benben is also quite good, demonstrating the flair for slapstick physical comedy that he regularly displays in the clever but extremely vulgar HBO television series "Dream On." He's occasionally over the top with his doubletakes and pratfalls — but he looks positively tame compared to some of his co-stars here. (Lloyd, Goldthwait and McKean also have their moments.)

The bottom line: If you can get past that sagging first third, there are some laughs to be had.

"Radioland Murders" is rated PG for comic violence, a few scattered profanities, some vulgar double-entendres and a very brief nude scene (a dressing room door is accidentally opened, revealing several women changing clothes).