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Tune out saccharine-sweet ‘Radio’

Cuba Gooding Jr. and Ed Harris star in this true-to-life story

Tolerance for the gushy sentiment of the high-school sports flick “Radio” depends on whether you’ve been booing or rooting on the sidelines for its star, Cuba Gooding Jr.

If you're fed up to the shoulder pads with Gooding’s bad movie choices since winning an Academy Award for “Jerry Maguire,” you’ll likely have little patience for this safe, unimaginative story of a mentally disabled man who finds acceptance as booster for local sports teams.

If you’ve remained a loyal Gooding fan counting on a comeback, you’ll come away feeling that while the home team may not have delivered a victory, it at least made a valiant effort.

“Radio” is a by-the-numbers tale of inspiration that resonates with the cheery sentiment and trifling depth of a well-written Hallmark card. Director Mike Tollin and producing partner Brian Robbins — sports-genre specialists whose past collaborations include “Varsity Blues” and “Hardball” — carefully concoct the ingredients for maximum pull on the heart strings.

The gooey results are lifted above mawkishness by sincere performances from Gooding and co-star Ed Harris as his mentoring coach.

Though “Radio” is “inspired by a true story,” Gooding and Harris’ characters are too pure and high-minded to exist in the real world. Yet the small-town sense of community and compassion they evoke is so goodhearted, the movie manages an amiable, if fleeting, rise in spirits.

Too good to be true
Gooding plays the mentally challenged James Robert Kennedy — nicknamed for his collection of vintage radios — who in real life has been a fixture on the sidelines for high-school sports teams in Anderson, S.C., since the early 1960s.

Once a shy loner pushing a shopping cart around town, Radio evolves into a combination mascot, cheerleader and gofer who becomes one of the town’s most beloved citizens for his loyalty and good will.

Several coaches befriended the real Radio over the decades, but the movie compacts his gradual emergence into a single year under the guidance of football coach and school athletic director Harold Jones (Harris).

There are hitches. The school principal (Alfre Woodard) has reservations about turning a retarded man loose on teenagers, while some townsfolk view Radio as a distraction to the athletes. Radio’s mom (S. Epatha Merkerson) initially has doubts about Jones’ motives, while the coach’s attention to his new charge puts strain on his relationship with his wife (Debra Winger) and daughter (Sarah Drew).

Tollin, Robbins and screenwriter Mike Rich (who wrote the similar mentoring tale “Finding Forrester”) thankfully avoid pumping up the melodrama. They hold discord over Radio’s school involvement to small moments.

Rather than a school board showdown in an auditorium packed with shouting parents, the movie’s emotional climax comes in a quiet dressing-down by Jones at the local barbershop.

That intimate approach lends needed authenticity to “Radio,” balancing the movie’s excesses of sentiment, including a maudlin score by James Horner, saintly depictions of the two leads, pointless opening and closing narration by Winger, and the inevitably adoring footage of the real Radio and coach Jones during the end credits.