Woody Allen narrates but does not appear in this gentle look back on what can only be called “the golden age of radio.” Anecdotal and frequently funny, it purports to revisit Allen’s childhood, though you know it’s more than a little idealized, and so is Allen’s version of himself as a kid, called “Joe” here and played by a very young and decidedly ungeeky Seth Green. Joe’s crazy, argumentative family is seen fondly — his dad (Michael Tucker) is an affable grouch, his mom (Julie Kavner) is, well, more or less Marge Simpson (Kavner did this movie not long before the Simpsons were created), his aunt (Dianne Wiest) is desperate to find a man, his uncle (Josh Mostel) keeps bringing home fish for his long-suffering wife to cook (“You don’t like it, take the gas pipe,” he says reflexively).
When we’re not watching Joe and his family, we meet various (fictional) radio stars of the day — including Sally White (Mia Farrow), a cigarette girl who rises to become one of radio’s swanky voices speaking of ritzy clubs and parties. Allen doesn’t stress the idea that these top-of-the-world radio celebrities would soon largely be supplanted by TV stars (those who didn’t make the successful transition to the more visual medium, that is). We can fill in the theme for ourselves: that innocence died along with radio, that when families started crowding around the boob tube — instead of having the radio on while still talking to each other and doing other things — it was a twin blow to culture and family. Allen also contrasts the envious listeners, who wish they too could go to the clubs they hear about on the radio, with the radio stars themselves, who despite their fame and fortune don’t seem particularly happy — perhaps because they know what few other entertainers had learned so quickly until then: it doesn’t last. (Radio stars were perhaps the first mass-medium kings and queens to face obsolescence after so brief a time in the limelight.) This is a group portrait if it’s anything — not even Joe really takes center stage; the real protagonist is the period itself, the war era, the jittery yet still hopeful and vibrant moment before the twin reality slaps of Hiroshima and the discovery of the concentration camps. I guarantee you won’t think of any of this while watching the movie, though; it plays as a perfectly amiable nostalgic pastiche, and only afterward do you flesh it out. I think Allen misses a good joke by not having Joe meet his radio hero, the Masked Avenger, only to find that the voice belongs to Wallace Shawn.