Just in case you missed the fact that George Lucas has returned to film production, the 1930s period comedy Radioland Murders is more than happy to remind you in the first 30 seconds, panning the camera from the Universal Pictures logo along a radio station tower to mimic the opening of Lucas' last directorial job, 1977's Star Wars.
Any resemblance between the crisp storytelling and lingering effects of that film, or American Graffiti, or any other film faintly associated with Lucas is either coincidental or wishful thinking. Radioland Murders, despite its pedigree and powerhouse cast, is nearly two hours of cinematic dead air.
Lucas lent his death-on-the-dial story idea, favorite writers, and executive producer clout to director Mel Smith (The Tall Guy), who transformed them into one of the most frazzled attempts at comedy you'll ever see. After nearly two hours of this eager-beaver effort, we know how the gaggle of oddball writers at Chicago's WBN network feel: overworked, underestimated and stuck without a decent payoff.
Radioland Murders takes place during the inaugural live broadcast at WBN, a device that allows Smith to stage one slapstick screw-up after another. In addition to the usual radio lunkheads (egomaniacal actors, power-mad sponsors and cash-cow affiliates), there is a murderer in their midst. Six bodies are uncovered, but the filmmakers are more concerned with bombarding us with weak jokes than fashioning a strong mystery.
Doors are flung open (usually with someone's face on the other side), everybody has a wisecrack ready (but not always funny), and any sudden move is probably a pratfall. The gags rush at us so relentlessly, like that deadly boulder Lucas dreamed up for Raiders of the Lost Ark, and all sense of comic set-ups, character development and story propulsion is crushed. Radioland Murders is like a movie that had too much coffee and we're the ones left gritting our teeth at the jolt.
It is good, temporary fun to see a loving re-creation of the radio era, especially the art-deco stylings of WBN, compliments of set designer Gavin Bocquet. Movie fans should get a charge out of the first 10 minutes, when a battery of familiar faces zip past for rudimentary introductions to their underwritten characters. Radioland Murders has a killer cast of comics _ Ned Beatty, George Burns, Christopher Lloyd, Harvey Korman and Bobcat Goldthwait among them. It's too bad most of the story is carried by Brian Benben (merely Dream On's "Martin Tupper" in period clothing) and Mary Stuart Masterson, whose porcelain countenance is neither sexy nor funny.
The best news about Radioland Murders is that Lucas may have whetted his appetite for filmmaking again, including a reported stint as second-unit director. Perhaps we'll see that second Star Wars trilogy begin 20 years after the original as he planned after all.
Radioland Murders Grade: C
Director: Mel Smith
Cast: Brian Benben, Mary Stuart Masterson, Ned Beatty, Christopher Lloyd, Michael Lerner, Michael McKean
Screenplay: Willard Huyck, Gloria Katz, Jeff Reno and Ron Osborn
Rating: PG; profanity, violence, brief nudity
Running time: 112 min.