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Radio is another sport-oriented true-life drama from writer Mike Rich, who wrote The Rookie. Like that film, which was one of 2002's most rewarding and surprising releases, Radio focuses on the way a community comes together to lift up one individual and help him surmount difficult obstacles.
In Radio, the spotlight falls on a South Carolina high school football coach named Harold Jones (Ed Harris). Jones's wife, his daughter, his team, and a whole community (minus one wicked banker) assist him in his efforts to help a lonely, misunderstood, mentally disabled person—James Robert "Radio" Kennedy (Cuba Gooding, Jr.)—find friendship and purpose.
The film is significant in that it breaks Cuba Gooding, Jr.'s streak of lamentably bad roles and forgettable performances. Since he won his Oscar for Jerry Maguire, Gooding has signed up for a bunch of awful lowbrow comedies (Rat Race, Snow Dogs, Boat Trip.) Here, however, in a role that could easily have been overplayed, the actor shows remarkable restraint, and makes us care about a young man who needs love. What is more, he becomes an example of unconditional love by the way he responds without selfishness or grudge to those around him who have in the past mistreated him.
But the most striking thing about Radio, at least for this reviewer, is its unconventionally intense concentration on one neighborhood's charitable endeavors. Most sports movies culminate with "the big game" and a cliffhanger tie-breaker. Here, although there is a montage about the local team's wins and losses that is framed in the same way as the one in The Rookie, there is very little emphasis on competition. Sports are merely a backdrop, not the main event. Director Michael Tollin's priorities are in the right place as he makes the human drama the center of our attention.
In fact, the lack of any suspense becomes a problem for the movie. Radio oversimplifies its central dilemma—and its characters—so much that there is nothing much to consider or concern ourselves with. We sit secure in the obvious rights and wrongs of the situation, cheer for the nice guys and boo the cookie cutter villain who is uncomfortable with Radio's acceptance. (Why he is bothered by Radio is not much explored.) And if any uncertainty arises regarding where a scene is going, the music declares for us what our emotional response should be. Despite the fine efforts of Harris and Gooding, Jr., Radio nearly drowns in James Horner's overbearingly sentimental music.
The Rookie had complex, realistic, believable characters. Radio may be based on a true story, but the supporting players that populate this film seem flat and one-dimensional. Radio is full of good intentions, and practically pounds us on the head with simple moral lessons, but there is an unfortunate lack of things to think afterward. We've had our most basic convictions affirmed, our emotions have been pushed around, and we walk away knowing very little about Radio, his condition, his background, his way of thinking, and the ethical questions regarding how to care for someone like him.
"It's not an unpleasant film," says Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films), "just unconvincing. Its heart is in the right place, though its head could be a bit clearer."
He goes on to list several things about the "schmaltzy, feel-good story" that troubled him. "The possibility that some kind of professional care might be in Radio's best interests is downplayed by having this suggestion raised by [the villain] … because who wants to agree with him?"
"This movie should have been a documentary," says Frederica Matthewes-Green (Our Sunday Visitor). "There is a great story here somewhere, but unfortunately, Radio doesn't tell it. [The movie is] "inspiring but hardly gripping."
Bob Smithouser (Plugged In) argues that it felt "too calculated and streamlined. I wanted more. Don't get me wrong, Radio isn't a bad movie. It's just that it could have been much more satisfying with fewer contrivances … and more character development. The result is a good after-school special, not a brilliant, richly textured feature film."
Anne Navarro (Catholic News Service) concludes, "[It's] a good story that would have benefited from a tighter editing hand. Despite its imperfections, Radio manages to inspire and uplift, and the moviegoer leaves the theater walking a little taller, and probably wiping away a tear or two."
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "This story is made even more poignant by our knowing that it was inspired by real life events. Cuba Gooding Jr. gives a controlled and surprisingly understated performance. Sentimental to a fault, Radio is sure to touch hearts and have audiences reaching for their tissues with its ageless message. The movie is a celebration of life, community, and the bond that links us all … Love."
Chris Monroe (Christian Spotlight) says it's "a good choice for family audiences. At times it feels like the film tries to do too much and comes across a little contrived, but the values are excellent."
Michael Medved (Crosswalk), on the other hand, has rarely offered up superlatives so generously for a film. He writes, "Every once in a great while a film turns up with so much emotional impact, integrity, dramatic richness and cinematic skill that it can inspire new optimism about the movie business, about America, about humanity itself. Radio represents precisely that sort of refreshing, altogether unexpected gift, a triumph at every level for all concerned."
Cliff Vaughn (Ethics Daily) calls it "an inspiring movie that all ages will love. Consider taking some tissues, but don't discount the movie as sentimental chaff. There's nothing wrong with being a sucker for a movie about something that matters."
Mainstream critics are mostly unimpressed. Philip Kennicott (Washington Post) calls it "a train wreck of a film lying inert where the tracks of the Feel Good Line cross the Path of Good Intentions." Stephen Holden (New York Times) calls it "a synthetic mush of molasses-soaked pablum." "Rarely have good intentions been wrapped in such a sticky package," says Peter Howell (Toronto Star).
But Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) sticks up for it: "There is no cynicism in Radio, no angle or edge. It's about what it's about, with an open, warm and fond nature. Every once in a while human nature expresses itself in a way we can feel good about, and this is one of those times. For families, for those who find most movies too cynical, for those who want to feel good in a warm and uncomplicated way, Radio is a treasure."
You can read interviews with Sarah Drew, who plays the daughter of Coach Jones, at Crosswalk and Ethics Daily. Drew is a professing Christian and talks about the standards she intends to uphold in her growing career as an actress.
from Film Forum, 11/06/03
Other critics are debating the merits of Radio, some arguing it is an artful and powerful film, others calling it manipulative, poorly conceived, and sentimental. Gareth Von Kallenbach (Phantom Tollbooth) says, "While Radio is at times overly sentimental, the fine work by Harris and the Oscar-worthy performance of Gooding Jr. make the film well worth seeing. Radio is a moving film and a triumph for Cuba Gooding Jr. who shows that his first Oscar was not a fluke and that he is very gifted and capable actor."
Megan Basham (RazorMouth) gives it an "A." And she has a few choice words to those who dare criticize it. "Radio is goodhearted, it never becomes … overly sentimental. [It] treats issues of race with a dignity that is all too rare on the big screen. So don't believe the cynical, oh-so self-righteously intellectual reviews you may read in other publications."
J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth) makes some impassioned (and not at all "self-righteous") arguments. "Of Radio's many problems, its view of the disabled is the most glaring. Why is it that, in the movies, the learning disabled/mentally ill are either homicidal maniacs or cuddly, friendly folk put on this earth to amuse us? Radio obviously fits into the latter category, and Cuba Gooding, Jr.'s antics are designed to bring chortles from the audience, though it's the sort of patronizing laughter that Coach Jones chastises his team for." He adds other complaints, including that it "lacks any kind of conflict," and that the music serves in "manipulating the audience when absolutely no manipulation is needed."
from Film Forum, 01/15/04
Film critic Megan Basham (RazorMouth) turned in her list of ten favorite films for 2003 this week. She includes Radio on the list, saying, "Don't listen to the negative hyperbole. The fact that most critics found this film too inspirational to be true is a sad commentary on their own lives."
(Actually, critics were not saying the film was "too inspirational." They were saying it was "contrived" and "schmaltzy." Read through my own take on the movie.)