2 stars(out of 4)
Judging by its trailer, "Radio" looks like the Adam Sandler comedy "The Waterboy" played as a straight melodrama.
Indeed, the two films share many of the same elements: a southern setting, an enthusiastic handicapped boy (Cuba Gooding Jr.) in search of acceptance, and a high school football coach (Ed Harris) willing to help. Thankfully, "Radio" does not have Sandler's squawking, violent man-child. But it's a pick-your-poison comparison. "Radio" broadcasts the same saccharine sentimentality abused by many Frank Capra imitators.
Sharing the sensibilities of "Patch Adams" and "Rudy," "Radio" centers on a quirky, indomitable spirit - in this case a radio-obsessed, snaggle-toothed young man (Gooding) who pushes a shopping cart around small-town South Carolina. Though his handicap is never articulated, its clear he's "slower than some," in the words of those who know him.
When the local football team brutalizes him, its patriarch, Coach Jones (Harris), takes "Radio" under his wing as the team's unofficial manager/mascot. Although most students and faculty embrace Radio as he's integrated into the town, not everyone appreciates Coach Jones' altruism. Forces within the community, notably the crusty town banker (a la Capra) want to restore the status quo.
Although carrying the cinematic Mark of the Beast - "inspired by a true story" - "Radio" nevertheless contains some solid work, and no one embarrasses themselves. That's an important distinction for Gooding, whose recent hit, "The Fighting Temptations," has helped erase a recent run of spotty movies. Nearly outside himself and egoless, Gooding's understated performance as Radio underlines how maladroit Sean Penn's portrayal of a mentally challenged father in "I Am Sam" was. (Note to actors: If you are portraying a handicapped character, you should not appear more handicapped than fellow actors who actually are impaired.)
True, Gooding doesn't appear with any other impaired actors, and he can be a cartoony cheerleader, but from viewing the real Radio in clips at the end of the film, Gooding seems to do the man justice. He never steps outside the character (or his character's limitations) to play Pollyanna - Harris and director Michael Tollin ("Summer Catch") drive that nail in themselves.
The pacing fizzes mid-film while Tollin searches for a story arc, but "Radio," in the end, offers inoffensive family fare. Although his is not a perfect film, Tollin employs his soap-opera dialogue and aim-for-the-solar-plexus message quite unapologetically. At least he gets that part of Capra imitation right.
Directed by Michael Tollin; written by Mike Rich; photographed by Don Burgess; production design by Clay A. Griffith; edited by Chris Lebenzon; music by James Horner; produced by Brian Robbins, Michael Tollin, Herbert W. Gains. A Revolution Studios release; opens Friday, Oct. 24. Running time: 1:46. MPAA rating: PG (mild language and thematic elements).
James Robert "Radio" Kennedy - Cuba Gooding Jr.
Coach Harold Jones - Ed Harris
Linda Jones - Debra Winger
Honeycut - Brent Sexton
Principal - Alfre Woodard