Movie Information

Genre: Feel Good Biopic
Director: Michael Tollin
Starring: Cuba Gooding, Jr., Ed Harris, Alfre Woodard, Debra Winger
Rated: PG

If this movie were a tree in Vermont, it’d have a tap driven into it and be sporting a bucket to catch the sap.

I have yet to figure out whether Radio was geared to bring a smile to the faces of the manufacturers of Kleenex or the Chapman Crane people. It’s a toss-up, but the Chapman folks — who rent equipment to filmmakers for the purpose of those crane shots where the camera moves up and up and up to look down on the action — are, I suspect, all wintering in the Bahamas this year on the proceeds of this one film.

Most feel-good movies content themselves with one of these cliche shots at the very end. You know the type — the music swells, the camera moves up to a God-like point of view, and the viewer is cued to choke up and cheer like some Pavlovian canine who’s shelled out seven-plus bucks for the privilege.

Not so in Radio.

The movie is a scant few minutes old before we find ourselves propelled heavenward, James Horner’s impossibly treacly score rises, and we look down on Forrest Gooding … er, Cuba Gooding, Jr., sporting those teeth left over from Jerry Lewis’ The Nutty Professor and pushing his battered grocery cart of collected junk. If you guess that this is just the first of many such shots, you will not be wrong.

And if that’s the sort of tear-duct assault you go for, you’ll love this “inspired by a true story” offering about the relationship between the mentally-challenged James Robert “Radio” Kennedy (Gooding), football coach Harold Jones (Ed Harris), and, ultimately, the entire populace of Anderson, S.C.

Judging by the remarks of the audience leaving the screening, there’s clearly a market for this stuff. If, however, you resent the prospect of being bullied, badgered and bludgeoned into tearing up every few minutes over the fates of impossibly good characters and cardboard villains, this is a picture you’ll want to strenuously avoid.

Of course, the Anderson location — not to mention a song by local singer/songwriter Chuck Brodsky that’s played over the ending credits — will likely boost local interest in Radio, but it wasn’t enough to win over this viewer. Even if ignoring the movie’s ham-fisted manipulations were possible — and in a film this pushy in its formula-driven approach, I doubt it is — problems would still exist, starting with Gooding’s Oscar-hungry depiction of the title character. I kept feeling that the performance was a triumph of prosthetics and mannerisms over acting — and this was made worse by the decision to include footage of the real Radio at the film’s end, since the man looks nothing like Gooding’s characterization, doesn’t evidence his mannered movements, and seems generally far more aware than his celluloid counterpart, making Gooding’s portrayal look like one-part characterization to five-parts caricature.

Then, too, there’s the character’s whole safeness factor. The script completely skirts anything that might interfere with its agenda of offering up the main character as a “holy innocent” — and, as a result, not only is Radio too good to be believed, but he’s as strangely sexless as a eunuch guarding a harem.

Radio‘s Radio is a character who seems to exist solely for our edification. He’s there to drive home the — undeniably well-intentioned — point that we should all simply be nicer to one another. But as a person, he hardly exists at all. Even aspects of his family life are sketched in only to the degree that they support that agenda. The seemingly pivotal brother character — who becomes Radio’s caretaker on the death of their mother (Law and Order’s S. Epatha Merkerson) — is kept off-screen for almost the entire film. When Mom dies, we hear that brother Walter is on his way over. Then Walter moves in with Radio to take care of him … but that’s it.

Am I the only person who wonders about this? Could it be that the filmmakers were afraid that a caring brother would take away from the importance of Radio’s relationships with Coach Jones and the townsfolk? That’s my guess. And then there’s the whole set-up of the story, with Radio being captured and tormented by the football team, which earns said team the detention punishment of excessive Phys. Ed. at the hands of Coach Jones — for a moment, I thought I was watching the male version of Carrie minus pig blood.

It doesn’t stop there. Radio’s primary tormentor is upscale star jock and school pretty boy Johnny Clay (Riley Smith, 8 Legged Freaks), who may not go to quite the lengths that Nancy Allen did in the DePalma thriller, but otherwise behaves much the same way (that is, before Radio‘s agenda requires that he see the error of his ways).

I’m sure it’s all well-intended, but Radio is just too much a sermon in search of a movie to be terribly persuasive, and too much a vehicle designed to revive Cuba Gooding, Jr.’s sagging career not to seem like a calculated strategy.

— reviewed by Ken Hanke

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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