Eric D. Snider

Radio

"Radio" begins with the title character, a mentally retarded South Carolina man played by Cuba Gooding Jr., having the opportunity to be hit by a train. The train misses him. The film goes downhill from there.

I do not believe the individuals responsible for "Radio" actually attempted to make a good movie. I suppose one of them might have said, "Should we try to make a different or interesting or thoughtful or compelling movie?," but everyone shouted him down, saying, "No, let's just make a really generic one." Then they all got in their Corollas, drove to their favorite Italian restaurant Olive Garden, went shopping at KMart, then went home to wrap up the evening watching "Everybody Loves Raymond."

This is a movie that cannot accurately be said to have failed because it doesn't seem to have tried anything. It doesn't even make simple goals for itself. It only aims at getting Pavlovian responses from audiences too sleepy to realize they're being manipulated: Touching Moment, music cue, cry; Underdog Victory, music cue, cry; Retarded Guy, music cue, cry.

It's based on a true story, set in 1976 in Anderson, S.C., a town where high school sports, especially football, are all that matters. Radio, a man of indeterminate age and unknown dental origin, spends his days pushing a shopping cart around town and listening to a radio. It is because he likes the radio, in fact, that he gets his nickname. For this reason, I now wish to be known as Chocolate Pop-Tarts.

Anyway, sometimes he stands outside the fence while the football team is practicing, and one day when the coach isn't looking, the team ties up Radio with masking tape, pushes him into a shed, and throws footballs at it from the outside. This seems like an odd form of punishment, since the shed is spacious and Radio is several feet away from the wall being thrown at, but it's the best the team -- led by the mildly rebellious Johnny Clay (Riley Smith) -- can come up with.

The coach finds out, and boy is he ever mad. He is Harold Jones (Ed Harris), a good man, a decent man, the sort of man who loves his family and his job and his country and his pickup truck and his dog (I assume he has a dog). He does not cotton to his young charges tormenting local retarded men. He punishes them by making them run a lot (take note, boys: THAT'S a punishment) and invites Radio to help the team with practice.

Thus begins a montage reminiscent of Disney's "Sports Goofy," in which Radio/Goofy becomes entangled in all sorts of hilarious athletic predicaments, like having footballs hiked at his head and getting in the way of tackle dummies.

The team takes to Radio, slowly, as does the whole town. Soon he is something of a mascot for Anderson, S.C., in a rather creepy and condescending way, being given access to everything and everyone, and being forgiven for anything inappropriate or dangerous he does. Local parent Frank (Chris Mulkey) thinks Radio is a distraction from the team's performance, but he's put in his place. A new cop, unfamiliar with Radio's permission to do whatever he damn well pleases within the city limits, hauls him in for being weird and vagrant on Christmas morning, but that cop gets his, too. Wo betide all who oppose Radio!

With the physical hijinks and outrageous teeth and nearly incoherent yammer speaking pattern, Radio is the funniest character Cuba Gooding Jr. has ever played. Sadly, the character was intended to be taken seriously. Playing a mentally handicapped person is hard work for an actor, and my hat's off to Cuba for even trying it, but he screws it up royally, filling his performance with mannerisms and tics but no soul. He's less embarrassing than I Am Sam, but light years from Rain Man.

Ed Harris is characteristically stoic and admirable as the coach, earnestly performing in what he must have known was going to be an unworthy film. Alfre Woodard plays the school principal, Debra Winger has a small role as the coach's wife, and S. Epatha Merkerson (the lieutenant on "Law & Order") plays Radio's mom. They're all fine.

The director is Michael Tollin, a TV producer who also directed Freddie Prinze Jr.'s "Summer Catch" (2001). But the writer is Mike Rich, whose "Finding Forrester" (2000) and "The Rookie" (2002) were decent films with approximately the same tone as this one. I don't know where he went wrong. Maybe it's time to try a different genre.

What we have here is a movie that is not claw-your-eyes-out bad, but not worth seeing, either. Is it uplifting? Sure, I guess, in a bland sort of way, like seeing a mediocre junior high school production of "The Miracle Worker." "Radio" mostly just needs to be tuned out and forgotten.

Grade: D+

Rated PG, some mild profanity

1 hr., 49 min.

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