- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 28, 2003

“Radio” isn’t as excruciating as one fears, especially when confronted with the prospect of an Oscar-winning actor attempting a role that threatens to be pathetic in the extreme.

The conceptual drawbacks are exposed decisively when the real-life prototypes for the principal characters — a retired high school football coach from Anderson, S.C., named Harold Jones and a mentally retarded man named James Robert Kennedy who became an inspirational fixture with Mr. Jones’ teams — are revealed near the fade-out of the movie.

Their benedictive actuality confirms a thought that recurs throughout the film, a tear-jerker with a prep-sports backdrop from the same production apparatus that was responsible for “Varsity Blues,” “Summer Catch” and “Hardball.” The material of “Radio,” which draws its title from Mr. Kennedy’s nickname, might be better served by a documentary format. Fictionalized sentimentality proves a consistent curse.

The belated guest appearances reflect a lifelike poignancy that eludes the movie, which co-stars Cuba Gooding Jr. as Radio and Ed Harris as Coach Jones. Even if one gives the filmmakers credit for sincere and humble motives, a deference they don’t seem to deserve while relying on trite conflicts and affirmations to celebrate a chronicle of small-town generosity and camaraderie, the image of the real men deflates make-believe in an instant. Given the disparity, actors intrude at their peril. The relationships they pretend to honor between people of different mental capacities can never approximate the emotional demands and consolations of real life.

Derived from a Sports Illustrated human-interest story by Gary Smith, the movie identifies 1976-77 as the school year in which Radio came to the attention of Mr. Jones. Evidently, the association stretches to the 1960s, when Mr. Jones was an assistant coach at T.L. Hanna High School in Anderson. The cinematic Coach Jones notices Radio hanging around the practice field, pushing a grocery cart in which he collects random objects, including a football that soars out of the school grounds.

Rather like little Elliott persuading E.T. to enter the house, the grown-up coach contrives to make Radio feel comfortable as an onlooker, then a kind of honorary manager, cheerleader and coach. Lest we feel too unworthy in his presence, the coach tends to neglect spouse Debra Winger, still too radiant for routine domestic duty, and a teen-age daughter played by Sarah Drew, who struggles to bear with his token character flaw.

There are obstacles that always feel arbitrary and bogus: an episode of harassment by a handful of team members; resistance from a prominent banker and the father of a star athlete who functions as an expedient discipline problem; and a cruel practical joke that calls attention to Radio’s basic decency and sweetness. By and large, the movie seems to believe that it’s Ed Harris’ way or the highway when it comes to doing right by Radio.

Cuba Gooding Jr., mightily preoccupied with false teeth, cowering posture and a high-pitched, muttering style of articulation, doesn’t win you over to masochistic exertion. The portrayal remains more cleverly agonized than transparently heartfelt.

Nevertheless, there’s something to be said for reminding clever people that humbler creatures have a valid claim on life and ordinary gratifications, so perhaps “Radio” can be forgiven its makeshift storytelling. No one needs to heap praise on Mr. Gooding for this vehicle, but I don’t think he’s wandered into uncharted and insufferable reaches of special-pleading pathos.

*1/2

TITLE: “Radio”

RATING: PG (Fleeting comic vulgarity; fleeting episodes about juvenile malice)

CREDITS: Directed by Mike Tollin. Written by Mike Rich

RUNNING TIME: 110 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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