Radio (2003)

2003, Columbia. Directed by Michael Tollin. Cuba Gooding Jr., Ed Harris, Alfre Woodard, S. Epatha Merkerson, Debra Winger.

Decent Films Ratings

Overall
Recommendability
?C
Artistic/
Entertainment Value
?
Moral/Spiritual
Value (+4/-4)
? +1
Age
Appropriateness
?Kids & Up

External Ratings

MPAA ?PG USCCB ?NR

Content advisory: Limited profanity and mild crude language; brief maltreatment of a mentally handicapped individual.

By Steven D. Greydanus

Radio purports to be a celebration of the innocence and virtue of a mentally handicapped man, but is actually a congratulatory ode to the goodness of the townspeople who embrace him.

The film tells us all about the goodness of Radio (Cuba Gooding Jr., The Fighting Temptations), a "severely retarded" young man who wanders the streets of a small South Carolina town until being taken under the wing of the high-school football coach (Ed Harris, The Hours, A Beautiful Mind), his team, and finally the whole school. "You’re a better man than I am," Coach Jones tells Radio, and later comments to others, "We’re not the one’s who’ve been teaching Radio, he’s the one who’s been teaching us."

But Radio isn’t really interested enough in its title character as a person to show us much in the way of his supposedly edifying behavior. Radio is less an active character in his own film than a passive recipient of kindness or cruelty, a subject of debate and controversy, a political football to be kicked around. When high-school students between classes cheerfully greet Radio as he cautions them not to run in the hall, the point isn’t how much he cares about them, but how much they care about him.

The one time the filmmakers try to let Radio rise to something like nobility comes when he refuses to rat out the student who tricked him into wandering into the girl’s locker room. Unfortunately, not only is this at least arguably misguided — not that I’m faulting the character, but remember, this is the filmmakers’ one best shot at highlighting Radio’s inspirational goodness — but it requires more guile from artless Radio than anything else we’ve seen would lead us to believe him capable of.

It’s not an unpleasant film. As I commented about another recent film, its heart is in the right place, though its head could be a bit clearer. Harris is enjoyable as always, while Gooding’s performance, if you can get past the baggage of his entire dismal post-Jerry Maguire career, is at least reasonably watchable. The schmaltzy, feel-good story will surely strike a chord with at least some viewers.

It’s not unpleasant, just unconvincing. It takes place in a town where all the citizens assemble in the local barbershop for a late-night impromptu town meeting to resolve the issue of Radio’s presence at the school, which you would expect to be a school board matter. (Until that scene, I had been wondering why a small-town barbershop had such a spacious cutting floor.) Jones, of course, wants to keep him, but another pillar of the community, banker Frank Clay (Chris Mulkey), is hell-bent on turning Radio out.

Neither man’s behavior has what could properly be called a motive. Jones is given a childhood anecdote about a time when he didn’t help someone in need, and Clay is supposed to have it in for Jones because the coach has benched and even suspended Clay’s son Johnny (Riley Smith) for unacceptable conduct. Neither rationale quite prevents the impression that the characters are merely doing what the screenwriter needs them to do without any very discernible reason.

The behavior of the townspeople seems even less thought out. It’s clear in the barbershop town meeting that everyone has come to love Radio and to think fondly of his ill-defined role at the school; yet it also seems that Clay somehow has the momentum behind him and that Coach Jones is basically alone in resisting Clay’s opposition to Radio.

The film tries to avert potential misgivings by putting them in the mouth of one of the characters, then brushing them aside. Thus the principal (Alfre Woodard) is allowed to question whether Jones isn’t reducing Radio to a kind of unofficial mascot, so that Jones can explode, "You know me a helluva lot better than that!" I’m glad he told us, because, you know, I was kind of wondering.

Similarly, the possibility that some kind of professional care might be in Radio’s best interests is downplayed by having this suggestion raised by Clay, because who wants to agree with him? And just in case you’re ever in any doubt how to feel about what’s happening at the moment, ham-fisted emotional cues from James Horner’s schmaltzy score will point you in the right direction.

There are gestures in the direction of other plot points without real follow-through. We’re told that Coach Jones is so absorbed with football, and then with Radio, that he’s been neglecting his cheerleader daughter Mary Helen (Sarah Drew); later, we’re told that he’s got his priorities straight, but we never see him actually being a father to his daughter. The movie also speaks of Radio’s non-handicapped brother, but the brother strangely never materializes even when he might be expected to.

Radio comes from the pen of screenwriter Mike Rich, whose previous film, the far superior The Rookie, was also an uplifting, down-home, sports-themed drama based on a true story. Unfortunately, Radio isn’t anywhere near The Rookie’s league. Or rather, given the different sporting milieus of the two films, one might say that The Rookie was at least a solid triple if not a home run, while Radio fumbles on the 45-yard line.

Tags: Drama, Sports

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