Radio (2003) ** 1/2
Directed by Mike Tollin; written by Mike Rich, based on the Sports Illustrated article "Someone to Lean On," by Gary Smith; director of photography, Don Burgess; edited by Chris Lebenzon and Harvey Rosenstock; music by James Horner; production designer, Clay A. Griffith; produced by Mr. Tollin, Brian Robbins and Herbert W. Gains; released by Revolution Studios/Columbia Pictures. Running time: 108 minutes. This film is rated PG.
WITH: Cuba Gooding Jr. (Radio), Ed Harris (Coach Jones), Alfre Woodard (Principal Daniels), S. Epatha Merkerson (Maggie), Brent Sexton (Honeycutt), Chris Mulkey (Frank Clay), Sarah Drew (Mary Helen), Riley Smith (Johnny), Patrick Breen (Tucker) and Debra Winger (Linda).
The more "good" some feel-good movies feel, the more you become suspicious of them. Whenever, as in this case, the films are based on fact, it eliminates many of the suspicions, but then you wonder how close to veracity the treatment is, how much is documentary and how much is fiction. Our story took place in the mid-1970s in a small South Carolina town. Football coach Jones (Ed Harris), a local -- married, one daughter-is a pillar of the high school and the entire community. He seems to have no first name other than "Coach." He impresses you with his abilities, his iron (but fair) hold on his players, and his being everybody's friend.
Another local is James Robert Kennedy (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) a young man with protruding teeth. We know nothing about him except that he is mentally retarded (How? How much? We do not learn) and lives with his widowed mother, a worker at the local hospital. What we do see is the fellow --who can be easily mistaken for a mute-pushing around roads and streets a grocery cart in which he puts things that he finds, and riding it too! It is like his security blanket.
One day, as he gawks at football practice, he picks up a stray ball and the team's fellows (just one? two? several?) mistreat him nastily. Coach Jones punishes them with hard, laborious extra practice. And that's the beginning of his taking the victim under his wing. Even more than that, a strong bond is born between those two. James Robert Kennedy is so fascinated by transistor radios that he is now called "Radio." In my collection of weird names, I found it irresistible that "Radio" is played by "Cuba."
Slowly, Radio "joins" the team in various functions, starts speaking in sentences, becomes a big football and rooter, and in effect the mascot of said team. That's nice but didn't Coach, Radio's sponsor and friend said something Politically Correct to the effect that Radio is a human and must not be considered a mascot? (Someone must have lost a page of the script.)
Anyway, the bond between Radio and Coach, plus Coach's family, gets stronger and stronger. Ah, that family! The movie dwells so much Coach's seemingly Constant companionship with Radio that a) it is improbable; b) Coach's teen daughter feels neglected. In fact, the backbone of the film is the nice relationship between Coach and his new buddy. It so happens that Ed Harris is a very good actor playing a very good man, so that we don't get impatient, Yet by minute 75, a time of crisis, matters get dull.
They improve however when (historically true, or not?) the local school board, maneuvered by the local banker, tries to spoil the near-idyllic situation with Radio (I'll withhold the specifics) but loses. (The realistic, economically staged townsfolk are a plus).
"Radio" has some likable actors: Harris of course; Alfree Woodard as the school's principal; Debra Winger as Mrs. Coach; Cuba of course; and others. But except for Harris all the parts are small to minuscule. Ms Winger, now approaching 50, has always been a favorite of mine (and a fellow-back-trouble sufferer.) She has practically nothing to do, except show us how gracefully she is ageing. The movie presents an admirably un-racist, desegregated, integrated town. Perhaps it was, perhaps not. Then there's the matter of hardly any Southern accents. And, too, the complete blank on what Radio was BB (Before the Ball), what he did beyond cart-pushing, how he was treated, why he was not treated (medically), and such. But Cuba's very difficult performance--his best in years-is a big plus.