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Woody Allen's evocative `Radio Days'

``Radio Days'' is the latest installment in three of Woody Allen's favorite love affairs: with nostalgia, with New York City, and with a troupe of hand-picked performers ranging from Mia Farrow and Danny Aiello to Tony Roberts and Dianne Wiest - not forgetting Diane Keaton, who shows up just long enough to stop the show with a song. What makes ``Radio Days'' different from other Allen pictures is its freewheeling form. It hardly takes time to tell a story, except for a bare-bones narrative about a Brooklyn family and a shorter, wackier yarn about a cigarette girl who becomes a queen of Manhattan society.

Most of the way it's a string of anecdotes and sketches, glued together by Allen's affection for the songs, heroes, romances, fantasies, legends - and even the news bulletins - that filled the air like an ever-present breeze in the time when radio was the world's most glamorous entertainment.

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Allen sets the tone of the action at the very beginning.

First comes an uproarious vignette - about a couple of crooks who strike it rich when ``Guess That Tune'' telephones them during a burglary - that has nothing to do with the rest of the picture.

Then we meet a typical Woody Allen family, which gives a center of gravity to the loosely strung-together film.

In the midst of it is Joe, an eight-year-old ringer for Allen himself, and such a radio nut that he addresses his rabbi as ``my faithful Indian companion,'' a line surely stolen from his favorite western program.

Other members include Mother, the set-upon but sturdy pillar of the household, and Father, an amiable guy who quirkily refuses to tell his son what he does for a living. Aunt Bea is itching to get married but won't settle for a man who's not perfect, right down to his taste in socks.

And then there's wishy-washy Uncle Abe, who goes to complain when the neighbors play their radio on a Jewish holiday - and returns an hour later with a newly acquired taste for pork chops and Marxism.

We've seen such people in other Allen movies, from ``Take the Money and Run'' to ``Hannah and Her Sisters,'' where he's portrayed them with differing degrees of seriousness. What never varies is his sympathy for them and their small but earnestly lived experiences, which find their culmination - here as in ``Hannah'' a year ago - in pregnancy and family continuity.

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``Radio Days'' contains a screenful of sophisticates, too, recalling the celebrity types in ``The Purple Rose of Cairo'' and other Allen portraits of bygone times. Some of these people are parodies of themselves, like the suave but silly Irene and Roger, who entertain their audience with urbane chitchat over a broadcast breakfast.

Others are deflated versions of people who may have been Allen's own boyhood heroes, such as the balding actor who incongruously fills the role of a heroic Masked Avenger - a feat that ``television days'' could never accommodate.

The episodes of ``Radio Days'' aren't equally successful. Some are less funny than they'd like to be, and a handful are altogether flat.

Harder to pin down is a somber scene in which Joe and his family listen to bulletins about vain efforts to rescue an eight-year-old girl from a tragic accident.

Allen means this to bring the real and troubled world into his otherwise cozy film and to show radio's power to unify the emotions of its listeners. The scene works, but it's so transparently tacked onto the rest of the movie that it seems manipulative. Allen is capable of subtler tricks.

Although it's smaller and less memorable than an Allen classic like ``Annie Hall,'' which it resembles with its jumpy structure and family flashbacks, ``Radio Days'' isn't a miniature like ``Zelig'' or ``Broadway Danny Rose.''

Even when the screenplay is less than inspired, the carefully detailed photography and restless camera work show Allen to be as keenly tuned into his material as he was in the more ambitious ``Hannah and Her Sisters,'' even if he doesn't have so many insights to share this time around.

Credit for the charms of ``Radio Days'' also goes to every one of its performers, from young Seth Green to such veterans as Julie Kavner and Josh Mostel.

We don't see Allen, who only narrates the picture, but to make up for his absence he seems to have lavished extra care on choosing the cast - persuading the likes of Jeff Daniels and Wallace Shawn to appear in tiny cameo parts, and enlisting such offbeat actors as Judith Malina and David Warrilow to round out the roster.

Carlo Di Palma did the splendid cinematography; Susan E. Morse was the editor; and the spunky score is borrowed from a host of terrific musicians with names like Cole Porter and Benny Goodman - household words back when ``Radio Days'' were everybody's days.

David Sterritt is the Monitor's film critic.

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