“Inspired by a true story” it may be, but inspired it’s not. A doggedly uneventful and flabby tale of the unlikely friendship between a South Carolina high school football coach and a mentally disabled young black man, “Radio” wends its way to the inevitable heart-thumping ending with all the energy of a lazy summer day in the Deep South. The gentle mood and positive message may attract older and family viewers, especially in Heartland areas, but only if they’re not over-saturated with excessive exposure to busy co-star Cuba Gooding Jr.
The producing team of Mike Tollin and Brian Robbins appears determined to dominate the sports movie zone even more thoroughly than vet writer-helmer Ron Shelton. But unlike Shelton, who offers an acidic, populist take on the sports world, their pics (Tollin’s first feature, “Summer Catch,” as well as “Radio,” his second) tend to go for the inoffensive by coddling viewers.
Although the source material for “Radio” is a Sports Illustrated story by Gary Smith about James Robert “Radio” Kennedy’s rise to acceptance by the football squad and town of Anderson, S.C., in the early ’60s, whatever hard edges existed in the original events are smoothed down to the point of dullness.
Like his script for “Finding Forrester,” writer Mike Rich crafts stunningly predictable events that bring together an older Anglo man and a younger black man. But, Sean Connery’s crotchety Forrester at least put up some early resistance to tete-a-tetes with Rob Brown’s would-be pupil. Ed Harris’ commanding Coach Jones — looking like a lean Bear Bryant as he barks orders at his high school pigskin team — takes an immediate interest in the youngster with the wide, buck-toothed grin (Gooding, at least a decade too old for the role). Coach Jones later nicknames the youth — who glances curiously at the football practice as he pushes a shopping cart carrying his beloved transistor radio past — Radio.
The script mechanically establishes Jones as a man who has little time for his family during football season, including daughter Mary Helen (Sarah Drew) and wife Linda (an underused Debra Winger).
An early promise of conflict appears when Jones finds Radio tied up by players in an equipment shed, and though it solidifies the coach’s idea of making the lonely young man an unofficial assistant on the team, even a naturally cathartic scene like the punishment of the guilty players (led by Riley Smith’s smirking Johnny) is nothing more than a standard, languid crane shot showing players in pads doing laps.
Radio is quickly at Jones’ side on and off the field, doing various odds and ends even in his classroom, where Jones apparently doubles as a poli sci teacher — an interesting side to the man that pic barely hints at.
Even Radio’s home life is a picture of peace and love, as he’s cared for by his adoring, hard-working widowed mother Maggie (S. Epatha Merkerson).
Attempts to introduce conflict barely raise a ripple on the placid surface of “Radio,” including school principal Daniels’ (Alfre Woodard) worries about Radio’s safety and the school district’s liability; Johnny’s attempts to get Radio in trouble; and Johnny’s banker dad Frank’s (Chris Mulkey) hounding Jones about dumping Radio because he’s “distracting” the team.
Nonetheless, Harris handles the role of Coach Jones with impressive professionalism, invoking emotional credibility where almost none is to be had.
Gooding, by contrast, is grating, although he keeps a lid on his worst, hammiest instincts until the mid-point, when he starts pouring on the cutes. An extremely classy roster of supporting actors, from Merkerson and Woodard to Winger, are wasted in pointlessly limited roles.
Tollin films both dialogue scenes and football action with unvarying flatness. In an otherwise visually undistinguished pic, a sense of the period of the early ’60s emerges in the design departments. James Horner’s music shamelessly yanks at the tear ducts, especially at the end, when the real-life Kennedy is seen running on the gridiron.