Were it not for Oscar-caliber talent in front of the camera, Radio would be a straight-to-PAX-TV movie. To some, perhaps that is a selling point. As an uplifting, PG-rated sports drama, Radio will also appeal to many parents looking for wholesome family entertainment. But unlike The Rookie--the previous uplifting, PG-rated sports drama written by Mike Rich--Radio patronizes with insulting cliches and lazy storytelling.
Star Cuba Gooding, Jr.--who, since his Oscar for Jerry Maguire has been something of a kiss of death--deserves credit for reigning in his recent schtickiness, but his shambling, buck-toothed, mentally-challenged "Radio" (the nickname derives from the man's penchant for transistor radios) still seems a tad overplayed at times. Ed Harris plays the small-town "Bear" of a football coach who draws out the retiring Radio and invites him to join in the team's reindeer games. A closed-minded parent (Chris Mulkey) blames the team's subsequent wavering fortunes on the distraction of Radio. Since the film takes place in 1976 South Carolina, we also get plenty of classic rock and R&B on the mall-ready soundtrack.
Following in the grand tradition of Forrest Gump, The Legend of Bagger Vance, and countless others, Radio takes an entitled point of view of the marginalized as the Ones Who Will Show Us the Way ("inspired by a true story"). In this case, the saintly figure cloaked in an aura of mystery who "radiates" a message of hope and good will is a mentally-challenged African-American man. The audience will stay well ahead of the characters' climactic realization that "We're not the ones who been teaching Radio; he's the one who's been teaching us." Oh, brother.
Of course, the de facto hero is a white man who champions Radio to a town of hesitant folks who fear the good-hearted young man and therefore lash out at him in the hope that he'll just go somewhere out of sight. As the white man's wife tells him, "It's never a mistake to care for someone. That's always a good thing" (emblematic of the film's sketchy caricatures, Debra Winger's understanding but neglected wife first appears cradling a battered copy of The Feminine Mystique in her arms).
The film's theme of compassion may be laudable, but Radio sickens with sweetness and seems to erase realistic complications (including racism) by sheer force of narrative will. Radio's only offense is ruining a play by spontaneously shouting it out to the other team; in the context of football, that's a crime, but the community forgives and forgets that particular transgression rather quickly. The filmmakers keep the objections to Radio as generic as possible; "conflict" is simply a screenwriting requirement half-remembered from school. The selfish, nasty-by-nature football star mistreats Radio until a barely motivated about-face radically recreates his character in the interests of lead-footed, "aw, shucks" lesson-learning.
James Horner scores the picture as if it were an opera, as director Mike Tollin ladles on scene after schmaltzy scene: Radio triumphantly rides his Piggly Wiggly cart down an incline, Harris's Coach Jones collects Christmas presents for Radio, Radio gets scared when he's wrongfully arrested, and then someone dies. The filmmakers introduce story elements, then sideline them (like the bland subplot about the coach's underappreciated teenage daughter). Earning his paycheck, Harris makes the Coach credible and likeable despite a deadweight character-motivating monologue and a slew of other awkward moments; indeed, only the stars' charisma keeps the enterprise afloat. Or, as the case may be, triumphantly sliding down the incline.