Cuba Gooding Jr., whose career has been a veritable rollercoaster since his phenomenal success in 1996's Jerry Maguire, has hit a new high with his latest, Radio, the story of a mentally handicapped young man who teaches a small South Carolina town about the meaning of charity and goodwill. Call this an apology to the Academy for Boat Trip.
Gooding plays James Robert Kennedy, dubbed Radio because of his fondness for the devices. Radio is slow (think Forrest Gump times ten) but isn't necessarily retarded. In fact, doctors are unable to tell Mrs. Kennedy what might be wrong with her youngest son, now in his early twenties, who spends his days cheerfully wheeling a shopping cart around town. One day, however, a chance encounter with a group of cruel high school football players brings Radio into contact with Coach Harold Jones, and sparks a relationship that will change all their lives forever. If you think that sounds like a grand build-up to what is an essentially small story, you're right, but it is the intensity of emotion that warrants such a build-up, if not the scale of the actual events. And actual events they are. Radio is based on the real life friendship between Kennedy and Coach Jones that restores one's faith in humanity.
Radio is unflinchingly sentimental, predictable, and yet, utterly enjoyable. It can easily be placed with other such manipulative favorites as Rudy, Lucas, and Hoosiers. When Radio is invited to help out with the football team, you fear for him, though you know deep down that it's all going to turn out. When the mean 'ol bank manager tries to get Radio kicked out of school, you fume, even though you know Radio will prevail. There are no surprises here, but there don't need to be. The movie pulls you in early and makes Radio your friend, and that's all it takes.
Much of the success of a film like this rests in the hands of its actors. Radio employs the talents of the aforementioned Cuba Gooding Jr., as well as Ed Harris and Deborah Winger as the Coach and Mrs. Jones. Harris is excellent. His performance is subtle, moving, and heartfelt, without ever becoming showy. Winger, on the other hand, is little more than an ornament, and her performance about matches the amount of thought put into her character. I really have never liked Deborah Winger, so I guess it's possible I didn't give her a chance, but she really isn't very good here. Luckily her role is small enough as not to damage the picture. Also worth mentioning are two terrific black actresses in small roles here. One is S. Epatha Merkerson, known to most as the no-nonsense Lt. Anita Van Buren on one of the many incarnations of Law & Order, on NBC. As Radio's mother, she paints a graceful picture of a woman plagued by suspicion, but always hopeful that people are inherently good. She's not unknown to the big screen, but has played mostly secondary roles. Also well played is the school's principal, portrayed by Alfre Woodard. Woodard's role here is almost a cameo, though is a little too lengthy for that. She plays the administrator that every teacher wishes they had. The true gem of the movie, however, is Gooding's performance. Never falling prey to caricature, Gooding plays Radio with true affection for the man. There is a dignity here that often gets lost in portrayals of the mentally handicapped, and yet it doesn't feel whitewashed. In comparison, Dustin Hoffman's Rain Man seems almost shamefully exploitative, though a better match might be Leonardo Di Caprio's excellent work in What's Eating Gilbert Grape? I don't necessarily guarantee Gooding will win another award for his work here, but it should at least be recognized.
I was not really interested in seeing this movie, to be perfectly honest. I wasn't feeling like a sentimental journey, I didn't care about poor Radio or Coach Jones' impassioned speech to the town, "We ain't been teaching Radio. It's him that's been teaching us," that I'd seen on the trailer at least ten times. I was in the mood for something gritty, rough, tough, and action packed. I am very glad I went against my better judgement. Radio may not be surprising, but it's sure something special. Grade: A-
Radio is rated PG for mild scares.
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