The big problem with “Radio” is that despite the promise of the title, you can’t turn it off. The picture–one of those true-life inspirational tales that practically scream out for Hallmark Hall of Fame treatment–tugs at your heartstrings so aggressively that it’s amazing that the sound of popped aortas doesn’t fill the theatre.
Since football plays a major part in the plot, Mike Tollin’s movie might remind you of “Rudy,” but here the title character isn’t a runt wanting to play for Notre Dame, but a mentally challenged young man (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) in a small South Carolina town who’s “adopted” as an assistant by Harold Jones (Ed Harris), the stoic, principled coach of the local high school team, after some of his players torment the fellow. (The time is the late 1970s, photographed by Don Burgess to suggest days drenched in nostalgia.) Before long Radio has become the darling of most of the student body and something akin to a town mascot, despite the fact that he occasionally causes some inadvertent trouble and a few recalcitrants continue to object to his presence. Chief among these is the Scrooge-like local banker (Chris Mulkey), a meanie who could give Mr. Potter, Lionel Barrymore’s ogre from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” a run for his money; happily his son, star basketball player Johnny (Riley Smith), who’s initially cruel to Radio, comes to see the error of his ways.
There’s an utterly prefabricated feel to “Radio” that isn’t leavened by any insight or complexity. A subplot has Jones neglecting his daughter Mary Helen (Sarah Drew) as he showers attention on Radio, but this seems basically an afterthought. And despite a half-hearted attempt by the dad to explain his motives to his daughter by recalling an incident from his youth, in Harris’s cool, impassive performance, the rationale behind Jones’s actions remains obstinately muddy. “Why are you doing this?” Principal Daniels, played by Alfre Woodard as though she were auditioning for a part on “Boston Public,” asks him at one point. “For the same reason you are,” he replies, which leaves one mystified about the motivations of both. Presumably we’re supposed to perceive that they’re simply doing what they know is right, whatever the consequences, dammit. But one hopes it won’t be considered blasphemous to suggest that perhaps Radio might actually have benefitted from some professional help, which seems completely absent here–a curious circumstance given that his mother Maggie (S. Epatha Merkerson) works in a hospital. (There’s also a weird lacuna involving his older brother Walter, whom we hear about but never see; you have to wonder why he never seems in the least concerned about Radio’s well-being.)
What really sinks the picture, though, is Gooding’s performance, which has entirely too much of the calculated puppy-dog about it. It’s never easy for an actor to be convincing as a mentally-challenged person, and perhaps Gooding just brings too much recollection of his mugging from his recent string of lousy comedies to have any hope of success; but his work here comes across as mercilessly broad and cloying. Harris’s starchiness sets it off even more, and no one else–neither Woodard, nor Debra Winger, who’s utterly anonymous as Jones’s supportive wife, does much to counteract it either. As for Merkerson, she’s oddly tentative as a character whose eventual fate seems predetermined by the tearjerking arc of the narrative. Tollin’s direction, meanwhile, is unvaryingly heavy-handed, and James Horner’s insistent score bombastically underlines every ham-fisted moment.
“Radio” is a decent technical product, and it may work on those who are easily conned by heavy doses of sentimental uplift. In any event it’s likely to make you weep–either because you’re a sucker for such manipulation or because you’ll be depressed about having wasted two hours of your time on such sappy drivel.