Adapted from a leaner, subtler and more thoughtful piece of journalism the fine sportswriter Gary Smith wrote for Sports Illustrated in 1996, the movie version of Radio reduces to a cartoonish hash the story of a lonely retarded man and the extraordinary effects he had on a high school football coach, the team and the residents of a small Southern town. James Robert Kennedy, whom everyone in Anderson, South Carolina still calls "Radio" because he always had a transistor radio pressed to his ear, is here portrayed by Cuba Gooding Jr. as a sweet-tempered outsider pushing a cluttered shopping cart who slowly emerges from terrified muteness to become Hanna High School's most enthusiastic cheerleader, its team manager and, in his own mind at least, its coach, quarterback and pep band conductor. Once the usual bullies and doubters are won over, Radio becomes the soul of the team (and, a bit unbelievably, of the town), and Gooding, armed with a full repertoire of facial tics, shy grins and uncertain foot shuffles, brings him to life with vivid, scenery-munching enthusiasm. It's the kind of showy performance that audiences love.
At the same time, director Mike Tollin (Summer Catch) and screenwriter Mike Rich (The Rookie) can't resist bashing us over the head with goodness, warmth and uplift. This is Hoosiers on steroids, Remember the Titans worked into a frenzy of manipulation. Oddly, though, Ed Harris seems uncharacteristically inert as the coach, Harold Jones, a small-town Bear Bryant with a feeling for the vulnerability of others. In Harris's deep blue eyes, we find this time around a kind of vacant dreaminess, as if he is thinking about something else (maybe his next movie). Certainly, he is willing to be bulldozed by Gooding's audience-appeal antics. A real pro, the star of Apollo 13 and Pollock simply recedes, resigned to second fiddle. Even the scenes where the coach confronts a disapproving booster (Chris Mulkey), tries to console his neglected teenage daughter (Sarah Drew) or disciplines a wayward player (Riley Smith) feel detached and halfhearted.
Like every Hollywood movie "based on a real story," this one takes some appalling liberties with the facts for the sake of jumped-up melodramatics. Gary Smith's original story, called "Someone to Lean On," goes easy on the schmaltz while painting a sublimely detailed portrait of its mentally disabled hero -- right down to the time local toughs yanked down his pants and painted his buttocks with paint thinner, severely burning him. The movie lightens and leavens almost everything about Radio and about Anderson, South Carolina, including Coach Jones's frequent exasperation with the man he'd taken under his wing. To soothe his wild stomach, Smith points out, Jones used to sip buttermilk during games, a wonderful detail apparently lost on the moviemakers. But that's not all. Tollin and Rich reschedule the crucial death of Radio's devoted mother to suit their own purposes, they otherwise fool with chronology, and in the end they have Jones bravely resign his post as head football coach to underscore his selflessness, although the real Jones did no such thing. Some of this you write off as poetic license; the rest you can't help seeing as formula-fulfillment. Sports movie audiences, Tollin and Rich clearly believe, don't want their hero stories too ambiguous or too messy with the details of real life.
There are some lovely moments here, including the scene in which the beloved Radio gives back the many Christmas presents the townspeople have given him, carefully placing one on each front porch he passes. When, at the end of the season, he hugs the game ball the coach has given him as if it were a baby, only the coldest heart in the house will dare to scoff. But the cumulative effect of the movie's many Kodak moments and stretches of greeting-card sentiment is that they kill us with kindness. Yes, James Robert Kennedy, a.k.a. Radio, is a touching, sympathetic figure who deserves our concern, and yes, Cuba Gooding Jr. goes over the top to display his every tender and tortured emotion. But if you try to jerk one more tear out of us, you jerks, you'll deserve what you get, which may be a plague of ticket-buyers' remorse and our quick exit to the cynical slasher flick in the next room.