[box cover]


Radio (2003) is the Quasimodo of our day and Cuba Gooding, Jr. his Lon Chaney. From Charly to Rain Man to The Other Sister, the mentally retarded have enjoyed unexpected inclusion in what filmmakers view as commercial entertainment, especially if by "commercial" one also means "well-intentioned," which is really to say that filmmakers have trotted out the mentally challenged to provoke easy tears out of heartwarming tales. The Cinema of Damaged Human Beings as Pets goes back at least as far as Mankiewicz's Shavian People Will Talk, and doubtlessly even further, though probably less kindly. The mentally retarded in such films aren't viewed as stricken souls who barely know what is going on around them, but as angelic creatures blessed with the all-seeing grace of children. Few treatments of the retarded in cinema have the startling effectiveness of Gardner McKay's TV play Untold Damage (1971), broadcast on public television with a young Richard Dreyfuss. The character Radio, at least, enjoys the slim virtue of being a real figure. His name is James Robert Kennedy and he is the town mascot of Anderson, South Carolina, where the high school's football coach took him under wing and integrated the grocery-cart-pushing outcast into the life of Hanna High School. Radio came to a certain measure of national fame in 1996 when Sports Illustrated ran a story about Radio and his relationship with Coach Harold Jones. Real movie fodder, at least one movie producer thought. The result, Radio, proves to be a slim story with a contrived villain (Chris Mulkey, playing a disappointed booster out of Blue Chips and countless other post-'70s sports movies), and with an embarrassing turn from Gooding, who has a cinematic history of playing broad characters. Basically he enacts this role with little more than bared teeth and a fluttering right hand. In fact, Gooding (believe it or not) seems to go a bit overboard in comparison with the real Radio, who appears elsewhere on the disc. Gooding has dined out for years on the fact that he won an Oscar, but like most supporting-actor awards, it was a one-off that didn't reflect a career-long achievement. What's odd about the film is that despite the title it's really about Coach Jones (Ed Harris) and the reasons for his inexplicable dedication to Radio, and its impact on his family. Gooding, despite his ostentatiousness, is really just part of the background. Harris is, as usual, quietly brilliant, and the viewer just wishes that the material had more meat to it, and that it had more for the rest of its cast to do. Debra Winger as Mrs. Jones, for example, has about four scenes, and in three of them she doesn't even talk — an odd role for her return to the screen after a six-year hiatus. As befits a recent movie, Columbia TriStar offers Radio on DVD in a solid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1). The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio (in English and French) is even occasionally utilized, particularly in the sports scenes. The main supplement is a commentary track by director/producer Mike Tollin, whose documentary about Hank Aaron was nominated for an Oscar. Tollin recounts the genesis of the project, tells why a 20-year-long story is compressed into one year in the '70s, addresses the questions that everyone has (just how handicapped is Radio?), points out where his relatives make appearances, reveals when the weather was really, really cold, and all the other usual tropes found in conventional middlebrow director commentaries. Other supplements include a handful of deleted scenes with optional commentary (really just fragments of moments that add nothing to our "understanding" of the film), plus a "making-of," an interview with much-heralded screenwriter Mike Rich and the author of the original SI story Gary Smith (a very articulate and interesting writer), and a featurette about shooting the film's sports events. Smith's source story is available as DVD-ROM content. Keep-case.
—D.K. Holm

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