By Shawn McKenzie 10/26/2003
Ever since 1968’s Charley, an almost guaranteed way to get an Oscar nomination is to play a mentally handicapped character. Dustin Hoffman did it in 1988’s Rain Man, Tom Hanks did it in 1994’s Forrest Gump, and, most recently, Sean Penn did it in 2001’s I Am Sam. Radio is Cuba Gooding Jr.’s attempt to get a leading man Best Actor nomination after his Best Supporting Actor win in 1996 for Jerry Maguire. I don’t know if the movie’s overall corniness will ruin his chances.
In 1976 in Anderson, South Carolina, Hanna High Yellowjackets Coach Harold Jones (Ed Harris) and his assistant coach Honeycutt (Brent Sexton) are getting the high school football team ready for another season. This means he will be spending less time with his wife, Linda (Debra Winger), or their daughter, Mary Helen (Sarah Drew), despite the fact that she is a cheerleader at the same school. After every game, the coach holds a press conference at Del (Bill Roberson) and Don’s (Kenneth H. Callender) barbershop where the locals and parents discuss with him how the team is doing. One day at practice, a young, mentally handicapped boy named James Robert Kennedy (Gooding Jr.) strolls by with his shopping cart. One of the footballs is thrown over the fence, and he keeps it. For some reason, his possession of the ball gives the quarterback, Johnny Clay (Riley Smith), and his friends the idea that they should traumatize the boy. They tie James up and lock him in the equipment storage shed, where Coach Jones finds him. The coach unties him and feeds him hamburgers. He notices James’ interest in radios, so, since James won’t tell him his real name, he calls him Radio. Suddenly everyone is calling him Radio, though Jones eventually finds out his real name from his widowed mother, Maggie (S. Epatha Merkerson), an overworked nurse at the hospital. Radio becomes sort of a mascot/assistant coach for the team, which some, including Johnny’s banker dad Frank (Chris Mulkey), consider a distraction. When Jones starts allowing Radio to attend classes, it brings the concern of Principal Daniels (Alfre Woodard) and the local school board, represented by Tucker (Patrick Breen.) The movie covers Radio’s first year of involvement with the Hanna High sports department, from the football season (which apparently includes only one away game) through the basketball season (where Honeycutt takes over as Head Coach.)
Before I review this movie specifically, I’d like to bring up a topic that I hadn’t thought of until I was listening to a radio talk show last week. Why is Chris Burke, the actor who played Corky on ABC’s early ‘90s TV series “Life Goes On,” the only known actor with an actual mental disability to get work ever? Aside from comedy sketch shows, white people no longer portray other races in the movies, so why can’t they hire an actual mentally retarded actor to play a mentally retarded character?
So…will Cuba be adding another little gold statue to his bookcase? The problem with many sports dramas is that they easily become sappy. This movie actually focuses less on the game and more on the relationship between Radio and Coach Jones, but the Radio character delves into another cheesy area…the “inspirational character.” There is no natural progression to the inspiration either. Two characters who were initially anti-Radio, Mary Helen and Johnny, both suddenly love him later in the movie, as if a light bulb went off in their head. Cuba’s performance is great though, and it almost erases the memory of Snow Dogs. Harris does a good job with his role, even though he has to give the “we didn’t teach him, he taught us” speech at the end of the movie that makes any chance of some jerking of tears hard to do.
Radio isn’t a bad movie, nor is it boring. I just don’t think that Cuba is necessarily going to get an Oscar nomination just because he is playing a mentally handicapped character. I think director Mike Tollin makes a better TV producer (“What I Like About You,” “Smallville”) than a director (the horrible Freddie Prinze Jr. vehicle Summer Catch.) The hokiness of the story will bring it down. I remember thinking the sports drama Remember the Titans, a considerably less sappy “inspirational” movie, was going to see many nominations, but it didn’t get a single one. I don’t think Academy members are going to tune into this Radio station (I’m sorry…I had to have at least one radio pun!)
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