Cuba Gooding Jr.’s career path is similar to that of Nicolas Cage. They both won acting Oscar’s in the 90s (Cage for Leaving Las Vegas and Gooding for Jerry Maguire) and they both made some pretty crappy movies after they won. But then they made significant comebacks, Cage with last year’s wonderful Adaptation, and Gooding with Radio. Cage was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor (which he probably could have won if it wasn’t such a competitive year) and I wouldn’t be surprised if Gooding is nominated for Best Actor this year for his marvelous performance in Radio. It’s a pretty solid movie, with some nice acting and directing, although the script didn’t have to be as nice as it was.
Radio is probably one of the weirdest character names I’ve come across in the movies. They call him (Gooding) Radio because he doesn’t talk much when we first meet him, and he takes a liking to one of the football coach’s radio. I guess we can be thankful that he didn’t take a liking the coach’s pencil sharpener, or something like that, but Radio still seems kind of odd, although it does work on some level. Anyway, the kid/man they call Radio has been pushing his shopping cart around Hanna High for years, and when some of the football kids start picking on him, Coach Jones (Harris) steps in and takes the young man under his wing, giving him a job, of sorts, as ball boy/cheerleader/arbitrary inspirational figure. I’m glad that they didn’t make it like “We won State ‘cause Radio inspired us” which would’ve seemed incredibly unrealistic, even if that was the case in the true story this movie was inspired by.
The movie feels like a weird frappe of Varsity Blues, Rain Man and The Waterboy, and the Varsity Blues influence is deep in many ways. Radio is produced by Brian Robbins, who, if you’re old like me, will remember as the rebel/smart kid Eric from the TV show “Head of the Class,” and director Michael Tollin, who both produced Varsity Blues, which Robbins directed. The football action in the movie is really nice, but there could’ve been more of it. And although James Horner’s music is incredibly corny, I’m thankful that Tollin didn’t use the Foo Fighters’ song “My Hero” like they used way way too much in Varsity Blues.
The best part of the movie is Gooding’s incredible performance as James Kennedy Smith a.k.a Radio. He shows us some great range that we forgot he had (See: well, anything after Jerry Maguire) and is amazingly convincing as a mentally retarded young man. It is the best performance of his career and one that I think is long overdue. I have long been a fan of Gooding since his breakthrough performance in Boyz N the Hood and I’m glad that he’s finally picking some better movies to act in. And his performance is even more amazing when you see actual footage of the real Radio at the end of the movie, because you see how real-to-life Gooding’s performance really is.
The rest of the acting is pretty good here as well, with nice performances from Ed Harris as Coach Jones, Debra Winger as Mrs. Coach Jones and Sarah Drew as Daughter Jones. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Academy recognizes Harris for his supporting performance, because he gives another solid performance here. I was really annoyed by Riley Smith’s performance as the bad-kid-gone-good Johnny and Chris Mulkey’s performance as Johnny’s dad, the bad-adult-who-stays-bad Frank, but the other performances were pretty good.
The main problem with the movie is the script, written by schmaltzy sports movie scribe Mike Rich (Finding Forrester, The Rookie). I loved The Rookie, and I haven’t seen Finding Forrester yet, but I’ve heard great things about it. What I think Rich failed to realize in writing Radio is that, although this is a nice story that probably deserves to be told, there is just no real conflict, which is essential in any movie. In The Rookie, which is also based on a true story, there is tons of conflict already built in, which he worked in very nicely. The conflicts in Radio seemed incredibly forced and too Hollywood. In the movie, there are always people asking “Why?” as in why would Harris do the proverbial “right thing” and help out Radio, but they never give a good answer. Frank’s reasoning for getting rid of Radio is absurd and although it tries to serve as conflict, just comes off as dumb. It is a nice story, heartwarming and all, with a nice message that you should treat “different” people nicely, but they cram it down your throat so much that you feel like you’re choking on decency.
Director Michael Tollin is pretty good at the helm, handling his actors very nicely and using some great football action. He has a nice sense of flow with the cinematographer and the visuals move along nicely, even when the story tries to chop the movie up a bit. If there’s another football movie that comes along, I’d hope he directs it, but I hope the script is a lot better than this one. He works nicely with the little he has to work with in the script and I think he would shine with different material, but his direction in this movie shows us that he is capable of some nice things in the director’s chair.
Radio is a movie about tolerance and understanding, although it expects us to tolerate a shoddy script and understand a movie with such little conflict. Go for Gooding’s great performance and go if you want to feel good about treating people properly. Just don’t expect to understand why you should.