Cuba Gooding Jr. deserves similar congratulations for his courage, not just for "playing retarded" in the titular role in Radio, but for most of what he's done since he won his own Oscar as jawboning jock Rod Tidwell in 1996's Jerry Maguire, a role in which his only devastating handicap was playing for the Arizona Cardinals. If not true fearlessness, it's hard to imagine what else can explain some of Gooding's recent script-picking decisions - Chill Factor, Instinct, Rat Race, Snow Dogs, and the execrable Boat Trip come to mind. Maybe he can't read.
As Radio (so named because, um, he likes radios), Gooding uses a French fry gut and some joke store "hillbilly teeth" to transform himself into a 30-something man whose momma assures us is "the same as everybody else, just a little slower than most." Since she's working long hours, Radio is left to push a battered shopping cart around his small South Carolina town all day and stay out of trouble.
When Radio's daily route takes him past the afternoon practices of the local high school football team, stern-yet-warm head coach Harold Jones (Ed Harris) reaches out to him, gently gaining his trust and eventually bringing him onto the team as an assistant. Football season turns into basketball season, and Radio becomes a functioning member of high school society. And aside from some trivial tension from a pencil-necked bureaucrat and the meddling father of a star athlete, that's pretty much the whole story, told over 106 minutes.
If that sounds like an awfully-long after-school special, it is, and the underdeveloped presence of Debra Winger as Harris's unconditionally supportive wife also helps lend a certain Lifetime quality to the production. Director Michael Tollin is mostly a TV guy as it is, with a litter of minor-network shows in his portfolio. Radio is only his second dramatic feature as director, the first being the disastrous baseball-and-sex flick Summer Catch. Mike Rich's screenplay is plodding and shapeless, unlike his last work, the well-received Dennis Quaid baseball-and-aging flick The Rookie.
Hollywood is always looking for a sure bet in a crowded multiplex, and The Rookie was a real shocker: a non-animated G-rated feature that tore up the box office for more than $75 million. Radio follows the same formula, a sweet, family-friendly story with a sports theme to keep men interested.
What's missing is drama - there's pretty much none of it, in spite of the swelling music. Radio is pure good, and everyone loves him. And those who don't love him come around within a few minutes. The setting of small-town South Carolina in 1976 itself provides no sparks, no racial tension (even with Alfre Woodard as principal), no religious fervor, no sense of anything. It's just a cute little community that loves its high school sports. With no antagonists, no real challenges, no real threats, there's no one to root for.
Oh, there's melodrama, enough to keep an entire studio audience of Live with Regis and Kelly in a pile of Kleenex. But the flatness of the story is especially surprising since the opening title reminds us that Radio is "inspired by a true story." Indeed, Tollin bought the development rights after reading a feature in Sports Illustrated. While it's nice to see someone like Radio finding their place in the world, one has to wonder why Tollin thought it was a great idea to dedicate an entire feature film to such a simple tale, instead of choosing, say, any other article in that issue of SI. Wouldn't a Cuba Gooding Jr. vehicle about the life of Darryl Strawberry have been more fascinating?
DVD includes deleted scenes, director's commentary, and a couple of making-of shorts.
Maybe try boxing next time.
Run time: 109 mins
In Theaters: Friday 24th October 2003
Box Office USA: $52.3M
Box Office Worldwide: $52.3M
Distributed by: Sony Pictures Entertainment
Production compaines: Revolution Studios, Columbia Pictures
Contactmusic.com: 2 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 36%
Fresh: 42 Rotten: 75
IMDB: 6.9 / 10
Director: Michael Tollin
Screenwriter: Mike Rich
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