`Radio' isn't worth watching

October 24, 2003|By Jan Stuart | Jan Stuart,NEWSDAY

Earlier in the month, an Iranian human rights activist was glorified by the Nobel Peace Prize committee, while just this week Mother Teresa was beatified by the pope.

Hollywood, not to be outdone, has canonized a white football coach who took it upon himself to be nice to a young black man of limited intellectual capacity. The coach's beneficence was doubly worthy of a major motion picture, we are to infer, because the events transpired in a South Carolina village at a time (early '70s) when memories of officially sanctioned racism were still tender.

Radio, the movie, is about as bogus an exercise in audience manipulation as you are likely to see this year. The mentally challenged James Robert Kennedy, aka Radio (Cuba Gooding Jr.), is a sweet-tempered, almost puppy-like figure who represents the unquestioning generosity of heart we wish we could have. His champion, Coach Jones (Ed Harris), embodies the determined, take-charge beacon of tolerance we each like to think we are.

When Jones sees the teen-ager being ignored and abused by his players, he takes him under his wing, feeding him huge servings of kindness and enabling him to hang with the team. Bit by bit, Jones and his irresistible charge eat away at the resistance of the community, which learns to embrace Radio and helps him become a useful member of society.

Or so we are to think. The school principal (Alfre Woodard) expresses reservations about Jones' agenda, worrying that Radio is going to become a "glorified mascot." Her concerns are justified, as it turns out. As Radio cheerily leads the team onto the football field at game time or barks out the cafeteria menu over the school's public address system to the delight of a captive audience, Radio cagily fudges the line that separates accommodating disability from patronizing it.

Radio further lets us off the hook from examining our own prejudices and enables us to revel in our own goodness of heart, concentrating the town's dark impulses in one resident Archie Bunker with whom we would be loath to identify. It also has the temerity to imply that Jones' single Achilles heel - he has long ignored his teen-age daughter - is more than made up for by the lessons in humanity he teaches her along with the townsfolk by way of example.

As Jones, Harris grins with paternal pride while Gooding, gunning for his second Oscar, stammers coyly and bares his cosmetically distressed teeth with precious abandon. Between the two, so much virtuousness radiates from the screen, you'd have to be a Stonehenge monolith not to melt.

Excuse me while I file my Grinch application.

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Radio

Starring Cuba Gooding Jr. and Ed Harris

Directed by Mike Tollin

Rated PG (language)

Released by Columbia TriStar

Time 108 minutes

Sun Score *1/2

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