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"I never forgot that New Year's Eve when Aunt Bea awakened me to watch 1944 come in. I've never forgotten any of those people or any of the voices we would hear on the radio. Though the truth is, with the passing of each New Year's Eve, those voices do seem to grow dimmer and dimmer."
The film focuses on young Joe (Seth Green) and his houseful of relatives in Rockaway Beach, New York. Joe's Mother (Julie Kavner) and Father (Michael Tucker) are constantly at each other's throats despite their devotion to each other. Aunt Bea (Dianne Wiest) desperately wants to get married but the pickings are slim during wartime. Aunt Ceil and Uncle Abe are always cleaning fish because of Abe's connections at the fish market and their daughter Ruthie spends all her time listening in on the neighbors' phone line.
As an adult Nostalgic Narrator, Joe relates memories from his childhood inspired by certain songs and sounds from the radio era. Woven in with stories about his own life, Joe also narrates several collected stories about famous radio stars of the time including the story of Sally White (Mia Farrow). Sally was a ditzy cigarette girl from Brooklyn who became one of the most respected radio hosts through a series of mishaps and lucky breaks.
The glamorous life of the stars contrasts with Joe's humble family but the radio played an equally important role in all of their lives. Despite the times having changed drastically, the stories still live on through the music and the memories.
This film provides examples of:
- Aw, Look -- They Really Do Love Each Other: Joe loves his parents' anniversary because it's the only time they are romantic and not bickering.
- Bad Date: Aunt Bea's date with Mr. Manulis starts out well but ends horribly after they hear the War of the Worlds broadcast on the car radio.
- The Beautiful Elite: The radio stars.
- Binocular Shot: Joe and his friends use a pair of binoculars to watch a woman undress in front of her window.
- Bittersweet Ending: Memories do fade.
- Brainless Beauty / The Ditz / Dumb Blonde: Sally White.
Sally White: (on hearing of its bombing) Who's Pearl Harbor?
- Child Prodigy: The basis of the radio show "Whiz Kids". Joe and his parents run into one of the child stars at the zoo.
- Coincidental Broadcast: Just as Joe is being punished for ruining his mother's coat, an emergency broadcast breaks through to report that a young girl near Joe's age fell down a well.
- The Cameo: Diane Keaton appears as a singer at the party near the end of the film, as does Tony Roberts. Both are best known for their roles in Annie Hall.
- Dances and Balls: The New Year's Eve ball.
- Deadpan Snarker: Most of Joe's family but his parents in particular.
- Dysfunctional Family: Joe's family.
- The Forties: The majority of the film takes place in 1943.
- Game Show:
- In the beginning of the film, two burglars wind up as contestants on "Guess That Tune".
- Bea is chosen as a contestant on a radio game show while on the town with Sy and Joe.
- Glamorous Wartime Singer: Sally becomes a singer for USO shows and Diane Keaton makes a cameo as a singer at the New Year's Eve ball.
- Happily Married: Though Joe's parents give each other a hard time, they are very much in love.
- Hot for Teacher: The woman Joe and his friends saw dancing naked in front of a window turns out to be their substitute teacher.
- Huge Guy, Tiny Girl: Sidney Manulis and Bea.
- Humble Goal: Early on in the film, all Joe wants is a Masked Avenger Decoder Ring. He never gets one because he got caught trying to buy it with money meant for charity.
- I Just Want to Be Loved: Aunt Bea.
- Incompatible Orientation: One of Bea's dates reveals he's gay after she admits to having a crush on him.
- Large Ham Radio: Half the appeal of several radio shows was their hamminess.
- The Mafia: Sally ends up working at a club owned by a Mafioso and witnesses a mobster murdering her boss. It's all Played for Laughs.
- The Mistress: Sally is Roger's mistress when the film begins.
- Mood Whiplash: The film moves from the live radio announcement that the little girl who fell down a well was found dead to a scene of everyone celebrating on New Year's Eve.
- Multigenerational Household: Joe lives with his parents and grandparents as well as his Aunt Ceil, Uncle Abe, Aunt Bea, and Cousin Ruthie. By the end of the film, he also has a baby sister named Ellen.
- Naughty Birdwatching: Joe and his friends were searching for fighter planes with a pair of binoculars and end up infinitely more entertained by a woman dancing naked in front of her window.
- New Year Has Come: At the end of the film, Joe's family celebrates New Year's Eve together at home while Sally spends the night at a lavish ball with other radio personalities.
- New York City: Sally is from Brooklyn and Joe's family lives in Rockaway Beach.
- Nostalgic Narrator: An adult Joe (voiced by an uncredited Woody Allen) narrates events in his childhood as well as stories about several radio personalities.
- Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: In-universe. At the New Year's Eve ball, Sally slips into her old accent when chatting with her glamorous friends.
- Pretty in Mink: One of Joe's most vivid memories is when his father gave his mother a mink coat for their anniversary.
- Product Placement: Used in-universe many times. Most notably, Sally sings the jingle for Re-Lax laxatives.
- Radio Drama: The programs that Joe enjoyed, especially The Masked Avenger.
- Radio Voice: The radio stars all have them but the most dramatic example is Sally.
- Single Woman Seeks Good Man: Bea is desperate to get married and goes on a string of dates without any luck.
- Slice of Life: Joe tells several stories about the quirks and oddities of his family's daily life.
- Show Within a Show: Radio programs like "The Masked Avenger" and "Breakfast with Irene and Roger".
- Slap Slap Kiss: Joe's parents thrive on arguing with each other.
Father: Wait, you think the Atlantic is a greater ocean than the Pacific?
- Too Dumb to Live: Inverted. Rocco (the mobster) decides Sally is so dumb that he doesn't have to kill her for witnessing a murder.
- Unnamed Parent: Joe's parents are credited as Mother and Father, though close listening reveals their names are Tess and Martin.
- Unreliable Narrator: The Narrator openly admits not everything in the film is true, since he's relating popular Urban Legends, and that his own home life was romanticized, ie. imagining Bensonhurst as constantly rainswept because that was when he thought it was at its most beautiful.
- Unwanted Glasses Plot: Bea is very self-conscious about her glasses and refuses to wear them on dates. This leads to an amusing sight gag as Bea discreetly uses her glasses when her date isn't looking to see what she's putting on her plate at a restaurant.
- Ventriloquism: Aunt Ceil loves a radio ventriloquism show and it drives her husband Abe crazy.
Abe: He's a ventriloquist on the radio! How do you know he's not moving his lips?
- What Exactly Is His Job?: Played with in that Joe has no idea what his father does for a living because his dad refuses to tell him. Joe finds out by happenstance that his father is a cab driver.
- World War II: Joe's family discusses it frequently and they admire the anti-aircraft searchlights during a black-out.
Mother: Boy, what a world... it could be so wonderful, if it wasn't for certain people.