Sony’s bizarre Radio is a syrupy tale of uplift drenched in uneasy Southern comfort. Once a mentally handicapped man-child with a Democratic president’s last name catches the scent of football, it’s not long before he becomes the local high school’s loveable mascot. Simple enough. But like Sony’s Bad Boys II, the film’s racism goes largely unaddressed. (No doubt unintentional, the opening scene of the film would have you believe that a young black man’s life is a train wreck waiting to happen.) Not that the film is malicious in any way; like its protagonist, it’s too strange and clueless to ever be genuinely offensive. James Robert “Radio” Kennedy (Cuba Gooding Jr.) exists for no other reason than to applaud drill-sergeant-cum-football-coach Harold Jones (Ed Harris) for being a good person. When Harold saves Radio from an impromptu kidnapping, he takes a liking to the mentally handicapped man. But the black female principal (Alfre Woodard) doesn’t think it’s a good idea for Radio to hang out at the school, no doubt trying to avoid the resurgence of the Civil Rights Movement. Throughout the film, Harold repeatedly butts heads with the school’s star athlete and the kid’s creepy dad, who conducts witch-hunts at the local barbershop. The threat here is that Radio will distract athletes from their game and subsequently threaten the integrity of their lily-white institution. Radio’s angelic mother works ridiculous hours at the hospital and the evil Frank Clay (Chris Mulkey) makes a living as a local banker, but the filmmakers refuse to directly address the race and class issues seething beneath the film’s surface. This sheepishness has a way of intensifying the film’s ghoulish tone, feeding our anticipation for something terrible to happen to Radio. If he isn’t going to be lynched or compressed into a Burger King pattie (gotta love those product placements!), then surely someone is bound to put a burning cross in his mother’s cabbage patch! But the film’s melodramas are much smaller than that. One moment the film’s wishy-washy white people are inexplicably hugging Radio, the next they’re exploiting him by leading him into the girl’s locker room. Usually unwatchable when he’s playing characters with 23 sets of chromosomes, Gooding Jr. is successfully outperformed both by his prosthetic teeth and Harris, who spends the film guilt-tripping everyone with his character’s holier-than-thou gaze. What is James Robert Kennedy but a toy for the film’s white people to play with? If you wind him up enough times he’ll teach you how to take risks, negotiate your childhood traumas, and help you raise your own children. This spectacle of hero worship applauds Harold at the sad cost of Radio’s dehumanization. Like the carol the film proudly blares during Christmas season: “Joy to the World! The Savior Reigns!”
Don Burgess's photography is luscious but highlighted by an understated griminess that affords the film its genuine old-school vibe. This is a very impressive transfer, with little in the way of edge enhancement. Blacks are deep, skin tones are excellent and Cuba's teeth are every bit as frightening as I remember them being in the theater. The Dolby Digital surround track is modest its dynamic range makes it no less impressive. For added fun, check out Radio in French 5.1 Dolby Digital surround.
Hmmmmm. I wonder if director Michael Tollin read my review of his film and my comments about the Civil Rights Movement. When Alfre Woodard enters frame, he goes on about how white people in the South put black people in positions of power in order to make a point to those who were against integration. Of course, he never does say whether the real-life principal Woodard is playing was a black woman. This isn't an engaging track per se, but I'm impressed by Tollin's direction of his actors, especially the way he worked with Ed Harris to liken the coach's profession to that of a filmmaker. Next up are three featurettes: "Tuning In: The Making of Radio," which stars the real-life Harold Jones and James "Radio" Kennedy; "Writing Radio," which shows how Mike Rich stumbled upon the Sports Illustrated article from which the film is adapted; and "The 12-Hour Football Games of Radio," a casting featurette that's every bit as annoying and imposing as it sounds (not for its length but for the flying fonts). Rounding out the disc are six deleted scenes with optional commentary (it's a pity that Tollin decided to ditch the church/classroom true-false sequence), filmographies, and trailers for Radio, 50 First Dates, Big Fish, Mona Lisa Smile, Something's Gotta Give, Spellbound and Rudy.
You know a film is in trouble when a studio has to dig all the way to the bottom of the barrel and use a quote by publicity shill, non-journalist Earl Dittman.