Radio, a new film written by the author of The Rookie, is a movie one wants to like; it contains enjoyable, humorous, and touching scenes and it is a true story with a decidedly happy ending. It is certainly a film for the entire family with enough humor and athletic action to keep kids attentive. By the end, however, most adult viewers will feel as they might after ingesting too much sugar, with the initially pleasant taste having given way to a mildly unpleasant feeling. Whereas The Rookie managed to keep its emotional appeal under control, Radio hits the emotional high-voltage button at the very beginning and never lets up.
Radio is the true story of James Robert Kennedy (Cuba Gooding Jr.), an intellectually challenged, young black man, who wanders about his small South Carolina town. He is especially captivated by the practices of the local high-school football team and his presence draws the attention of the head coach, Harold Jones (Ed Harris). After some members of the team play a cruel prank on Radio, Coach Jones becomes committed to repairing the damage and then to finding ways to include Radio in the activities of the team and high school. Radio, whose nickname comes from his fascination with radios and pop music, becomes an assistant coach of sorts and even begins coming to school, where in his nearly inaudible, but nonetheless endearing, speech patterns he reads the morning announcements over the school intercom.
At least one member of the local old-boys network, a parent of the star of the both the football and basketball teams, begins to raise questions about Radio’s involvement and starts a campaign to have him removed from the team and the school. And he has a point. Radio is indeed a “distraction,” at least during games where his unbridled enthusiasm leads him to reveal plays and incur penalties from officials. But this film has no time for nuance; it needs to depict good and bad characters in flat and simple opposition to one another.
The problem is that the film’s human dimension is all surface. Even the main characters lack complexity. One immediately feels sympathetic toward Radio and his benefactor, Coach Jones. But Coach Jones’s near obsession with helping Radio is never adequately explored or explained. This is made all the more inexplicable by the fact that the film raises this question explicitly. But when the “explanation” comes, it hardly accounts for Jones’s heroic acts. The time Jones spends with Radio, on top of his teaching and coaching commitments, has made him an absentee Dad to his teenage daughter but the film addresses this in two brief, emotionally mechanical exchanges between the father and daughter. It is as if the filmmakers suddenly realized that they had to say something about Jones’s domestic life and quickly inserted scenes to cover that.
The difficult is certainly not with Gooding’s performance; he never even seems to be acting as Radio. The problem here is with the conception of Radio’s character and the feelings toward him the film wants to inspire in viewers, feelings appropriate to an exuberant and very cute puppy dog, or, as the film repeatedly depicts him, a sort of school mascot.
This is not to say that what we need is endless social commentary; Radio could have gone wrong in that direction as well. But when a film repeatedly heads in the direction of big social and moral issues and then gently turns back to a saccharine storyline, it leaves viewers unfulfilled. So simplistic and syrupy is the message here that one almost wishes for a cameo from another famous film character named Radio, the incendiary Radio Raheem from Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing.
–Thomas Hibbs, Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Culture at Baylor University, is author ofShows About Nothing. Hibbs is also an NRO contributor.