by David Cornelius
“With radio, you can go as far as the imagination itself,” radio producer Ushijima (Masahiko Nishimura) tells us early in the brilliant dramedy “Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald,” and it’s easy to see he’s a man enamored with the format. Unlike film or television, radio drama leaves it all up to the mind, which has an infinitely larger palette than any special effects or set design team has at their disposal. But this is not the golden age of radio; this is modern day Japan, and such a love for the “theater of the mind” is mainly the result of nostalgia.Ushijima is producing an old-fashioned radio drama, “Woman of Destiny,” a quaint romance yarn scheduled to be broadcast live tonight. The script comes from Miyako (Kyoka Suzuki), a shy housewife who won a station-run contest and who’s been invited to watch the whole show in action. Which is to say, she gets to witness the madness firsthand.
"Every frame bursts with smiles."
It starts when the snooty narrator (Shirô Namiki) calls her aside to clear a few minor script changes - why say “lift up” when “lift” will do? Then the spoiled star of the show (Keiko Toda) has her own ideas, beginning with a simple character name change, then snowballing into larger, more lunatic alterations. (The simple girl is now a big city lawyer, and by the way, she’s American now, too.)
Ushijima’s the kind of guy who can’t handle conflict, and so he bends to meet every one of the star’s absurd demands. Which means, of course, that he’ll bend to the demands of the male lead (Toshiyuki Hosokawa) as well; if she gets to be a successful American lawyer, he wants to be a hotshot pilot.
Since Miyako doesn’t know how to handle all these changes so quickly, another writer is brought in, a hack named Bucky (Moro Morooka) who retools the plot to involve machine guns (“violence is a motif,” he insists) and a bizarre transformation of the lead character’s husband into a German named Heinrich. And he does all this just minutes before airtime.
It’s another innocent mistake made just as the show begins - the resetting of the story to Chicago, where, oops, there is no ocean - that causes the whole damn thing to unravel, with another frantic rewrite being forced to cover for another silly mistake. But that’s just the first of many problems, such as improper ad libs, the growing frustrations between Miyako and Ushijima, and, uh oh, the sound effects CDs have been locked away for the night.
This final problem is a prime example of the magic at work here. The director (Toshiaki Karasawa) learns that a security guard once did foley sound effects in the old days, and after much convincing, the old guy’s soon teaching his long-forgotten tricks of the trade. Soon, everyone’s caught up in the wonder of creating an all-new audio drama on the spot, and the energy that crackles through the studio is contagious.
“Mr. McDonald” (the title won’t make sense until late in the movie) has been compared to the lightning-paced screwball comedies of the 1930s and 40s, and with good reason. Writer/director Koki Mitani (adapting the play “Radio Time” written by his comedy troupe, the Toyko Sunshine Boys) seems to have studied every Howard Hawks/Cary Grant comedy, and he revels in duplicating the snappy, watch-it-twice-just-to-get-everything pace.
And yet the film is not merely a throwback, a nostalgic hope of recreating a time long gone. It’s also a cunning satire on the state of modern entertainment, with the drama’s ever-changing storyline a biting metaphor for every big budget movie that’s been watered down by too many cooks. Compromise kills art, we’re reminded, and yet, in such a business, compromise is oftentimes the only course available.Mitani’s screenplay takes a breather just past the one-hour mark to get this point across (and to give both the cast and the audience a chance to cool off after such rapid fire comedy), and then it’s back to the craziness. “Mr. McDonald” is a movie that’ll leave you breathless, gasping for air in between enormous chuckles. But it never loses its sense of heart, meaning that when you’re not guffawing, you’re sure to always be smiling. “Mr. McDonald” is a loving tribute to the magic of storytelling that’s warm, huggable, overflowing with wonder and charm. It left me feeling great and anxious to watch it all over again. It’s my new favorite movie, and soon, it’ll be yours, too.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=15882&reviewer=392
originally posted: 02/15/07 13:20:51