2003, PG, 109 min. Directed by Michael Tollin. Starring Ed Harris, Cuba Gooding Jr., Debra Winger, Alfre Woodard, S. Epatha Merkerson, Riley Smith, Chris Mulkey.
REVIEWED By Marrit Ingman, Fri., Oct. 24, 2003
You’d have to be a real ogre to say anything bad about this heartwarming true story set in South Carolina circa 1976. Unfortunately, the job falls to me. Radio has good intentions and a rousing message about "mainstreaming" the mentally disabled – whom, the movie quite seriously suggests, have been entirely ignored by the educational community hitherto. Whether this is true I cannot say. It’s clear that Radio isn’t interested in any of that namby-pamby moral ambivalence. Its hero (high school football coach Harris) is unimpeachable; its villain (Mulkey) is a malengine we expect to find tossing puppies into a river. At stake is James Robert Kennedy (Gooding Jr.), a taciturn fellow who shuffles around with a shopping cart. After saving "Radio" from some cruel boys, the coach adopts him as an informal mascot. Radio’s Gump-like antics delight the spectators, but you can expect the school principal (Woodard) to be a wet blanket, fretting about liability issues and wanting Radio ejected from campus. Yet she raises the question that should be asked of the film: Are we helping him or exploiting him? Director Tollin presents Radio as a "natural man" – he loves french fries, his monosyllabia exposes the town’s gladhanders and phonies. Indeed, the elements of satire (concerning the too-high stakes of high school athletics) aren’t ineffective. Yet Tollin pours on sappy montages of Radio at play – smiling, dancing, and happy for the first time outside the loving arms of his mama (Merkerson) – all thanks to the benevolent intervention of the Kind White People. In striving to make Harris the hero, Tollin slights the town. There’s no sense of an African-American community aside from a throwaway scene in church. In the kind of small Southern town where the local barber hosts a post-game coffee klatch, would a handicapped man with a single mother really be isolated? Winger returns after a long screen absence with little more to do than enunciate the film’s defining statement ("It’s never a mistake to care for someone. It’s always a good thing.") and chide Harris for staying up late. She seems so lifeless, so unsassy. It’s almost moot how well Gooding performs. He’s a physically expressive actor, perhaps too physically expressive for roles requiring restraint, and he nails everything the movie asks of him. But should the movie ask him to play mental retardation for laughs? The audience in my preview screening chuckled pleasurably at Gooding’s crooked prosthetic teeth and expressions of childlike, moony-eyed delight. When we see the real "Radio" at film’s end, he is in fact a larger-than-life figure who clearly enjoys working the crowd, even in his fifties. But what does it mean when he is fictionalized, drenched with a treacly James Horner score, and added to Hollywood’s longstanding treatment of the mentally handicapped as chin-chuckingly cute vehicles for our good intentions? You don’t have to be a cynic to find Radio naive for suggesting that high school is a good place for emotionally fragile misfits, that racism is not a problem, that caring for someone is all it takes.