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(2003) (Ed Harris, Cuba Gooding, Jr.) (PG)

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Drama: A high school football coach must deal with community criticism for taking a slightly mentally handicapped teen under his wing and trying to help him find a place in their school and community.
It's 1976 in Anderson, S.C. and Coach Harold Jones (ED HARRIS) is preparing his high school football team for another season with the help of assistant coach Honeycutt (BRENT SEXTON). His wife, Linda (DEBRA WINGER), realizes that means he'll have little time for her or their daughter, Mary Helen (SARAH DREW), who's a junior and cheerleader at the same school.

After every game, the coach shows up the local barbershop where the locals discuss the effort and contemplate the strategy for the next contest. Banker Frank Clay (CHRIS MULKEY), whose son Johnny (RILEY SMITH) is on the team, has a complaint. He isn't pleased that Jones has taken a local boy, James Robert Kennedy (CUBA GOODING JR.), under his wing and seems a bit distracted.

After Johnny and some of the other players abducted and taunted the slightly mentally handicapped teen - nicknamed "Radio" for his interest in such electronics - Jones has allowed him to join the team as an assistant and even attend class.

Since he's not an official student, however, that doesn't sit well with Principal Daniels (ALFRE WOODARD) or the local school board, but Jones feels that they can't ignore Radio. That's particularly true since he has little education and a single mother, Maggie (S. EPATHA MERKERSON), who is always working long hours at the hospital.

As the school year progresses and the football season comes to an end, Jones does what he can to temper the criticism of his efforts to help the young man find a place in their school and community.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
Just as life is full of inequities, so is the movie business. People with limited amounts of talent become movie stars and make millions, while performers who are more deserving struggle to get by and barely make a living.

Films that have next to no artistic quality make more money than the gross national product of certain countries, while other films are overlooked. And when it comes to awards and related honors, some lucky few manage to nab the prizes while more worthy performers get gypped.

Such is the case with Ed Harris and Cuba Gooding, Jr. The former is arguably one of the more consistent and better actors working today who's been nominated for several Oscars, but never won. The latter rode a flamboyant if good performance in "Jerry Maguire" to Oscar glory but has since appeared in a series of bad to truly awful films ("Chill Factor," "Boat Trip").

The two now appear together in "Radio," an inspirational drama that features Harris in his usual fine form and Gooding apparently swinging for Oscar gold again. You see, he's playing the real life character of James Robert Kennedy, a man "just like the rest of us, but a bit slower." It's the sort of role - along with playing the dying, physically disabled and the like - that Academy voters tend to love and for which they often vote.

Thus, considering the combination of that sort of role - that can either be moving and inspirational or irritating and maudlin - along with the presence of Gooding and what looked to be one of those manipulative, feel good flicks that play to the sentimental side of the masses, I wasn't exactly eager to see this offering.

It turns out my instincts were right, although the film does have its moments, both dramatic and emotional. While the effort will appeal to and probably entertain viewers who like this sort of sensationalistic, middlebrow offering - admit it, you know who you are - others will likely find it the equivalent of the plague or at least be disappointed by how things develop and unfold.

I fall into the last category, although I have to admit that was initially dreading Gooding's impersonation of the real life person. Yes, the film is based on a true story, although it's unclear how much artistic license writer Mike Rich ("The Rookie," "Finding Forrester") and director Mike Tollin ("Summer Catch," "Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream") have taken with the material.

Somewhat surprisingly, the actor isn't half bad playing the part (particularly in the beginning before he speaks and then goes through the standard movie cute-ification process), but it's hard to shake that Oscar bait suspicion.

Instead, other parts of the film undermine the effort before it really starts to unravel in the second half. While Harris ("The Human Stain," "The Hours") is terrific as usual and the filmmakers ably capture the passion of small town high school football (that somewhat surprisingly doesn't take up the entire film as the story covers one full year of school), things become contrived far too quickly.

Although a late in the game explanation provides reason for the coach's sudden and progressively determined interest in the title character - that nearly reaches the point of overshadowing the team - all of it feels too forced.

I liked the fact that he takes to that classic underdog character (who thankfully doesn't actually play on the team - I kept waiting for him to be a Forrest Gump type running back), but the way in which the filmmakers have fashioned the story feels awkward and manufactured rather than natural.

The obligatory villains - Chris Mulkey ("Slow Burn," "Jimmy Zip") and Riley Smith ("Eight Legged Freaks," "Not Another Teen Movie") as a father/son tag-team duo - are horrible, one-dimensional caricatures of real people. While I understand the need for some conflict in the drama, perhaps a little extra work could have been performed on creating more believable and realistic characters.

Then there's the overall "Magic Negro" element that Hollywood simply doesn't seem able to shake, forget and/or bury. Any number of films have featured a "special" black character who comes into the lives of white people, shakes them and/or things up, and then makes them realize the error of their ways.

That happens again here as Harris' character comes to realize, via Radio's presence and related developments, that he's been forsaking his family in favor of the football program. While the intent is obviously okay, the mechanism of delivering that message is clunky at best (and probably offensive to some).

The worst part is that Harris must deliver the film's single-most cringe-inducing line of dialogue (that's supposed to be inspirational) when he utters that they haven't taught Radio, but rather he's taught them. It's a presumably crowd-pleasing, thruway line that only serves to flash the "Obvious" sign for less discerning viewers to get a lump in their throat and a tear in their eye.

Beyond all of that, performances by the likes of Brent Sexton ("Enough," "Vanilla Sky"), Alfre Woodard ("The Core," "K-PAX"), S. Epatha Merkerson ("Random Hearts," "T2"), Sarah Drew (making her feature debut) and the long absent Debra Winger ("Leap of Faith," "Legal Eagles") are generally good, if obviously designed to deliver important plot elements and push certain viewer buttons.

While the film does occasionally ring true and hits some decent emotional chords, it just as often feels false and manipulative. If not for Harris's presence and performance, this would be much more difficult to tolerate. I'm sure it will have its fans who will be suckered into and/or fall prey to its slick sentimentality, but others will see the all too obvious faults. Filled with too much unnecessary static, this "Radio" isn't always worth tuning to and thus rates as just a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed October 18, 2003 / Posted October 24, 2003

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