Listen to Me

January 8, 2013

listnetomeIn Listen to Me, college coach Roy Scheider describes his avocation as “probably the scariest, most fascinating sport on the face of the planet.” What is this thrilling sport: Basketball? Football? The four-man luge?

Of course not. It’s debating. Yes, Scheider plays the wily coach of one of the country’s best debate squads. Now, I apologize in advance to debaters and debate fans everywhere, but let me suggest that debate is perhaps not the most scintillating subject for a movie. Probably debate is very exciting in and of itself, but it does have a tendency to make a film somewhat talky.

Listen to Me is plenty talky, although it does make an attempt to mix its scary/fascinating sports scenes with coming-of-age drama. The story, from director Douglas Day Stewart (He wrote An Officer and a Gentleman) deals with three students on the debate team, all of whom carry their own problems into battle.

The team leader (Tim Quill) comes from a Kennedyesque clan of wealthy politics; his father (Anthony Zerbe) wants him to use debate as a springboard into political life. But Quill’s secret wish is to be a tortured writer.

Another student is an engaging Oklahoma hayseed (Kirk Cameron), another is a beautiful-but-distant Chicago sharpie (Jami Gertz). Cameron’s main goal is getting Gertz to go out with him, and he becomes peeved when she won’t: “If you’d look at this empirically, you’d see that it’s all your fault,” he tells her, a debater to the end. Frustrated, he and Quill wind up frolicking in a fountain with debate groupies.

The print ads for Listen to Me have been suggesting that the film somehow tackles the abortion issue. Abortion happens to be the topic chosen for the debate teams, and it’s argued in the scary/fascinating climax, which is a debate in a Washington before some members of the U.S. Supreme Court. But the film has nothing to do with the subject; it’s strictly a theoretical football, to be tossed back and forth.

This brings up one of the irritating things about Listen to Me. The movie argues both sides of the abortion question. It does this so skillfully that you’re left with no feelings at all on the subject. This, according to the movie, is exactly what good debaters should be able to do: argue either side of a case at the drop of a hat. In other words, the characters learn how to say almost anything, with no regard to what they really think or feel. Presentation is everything. In this way, the film makes a good case for debate as a training ground for future politicians.

First published in the Herald, May 11, 1989

Which is why I’ve always found the idea of debate totally weird—we should teach people how to successfully argue empty arguments? It sounds like a recipe for creating terrible people.

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Thief of Hearts

December 12, 2012

thiefofhearts2Douglas Day Stewart had the darndest time trying to sell a script he wrote quite a few years back. It was called An Officer and a Gentleman, and the problem seemed to be that the story was just too old-fashioned and hokey for today’s hip audiences to believe.

Of course the film went through the stratosphere when it opened a couple of summers ago, and Stewart was quickly a hot property. But although An Officer and a Gentleman is likable enough, the screenplay was still hokey; what’s good about that film comes from the spirited direction and the magnetic star performances.

Stewart has now made his directorial debut (from his own screenplay), and he’s gone with a cast of virtual nobodies—so this time there’s nobody to bail him out. As a matter of fact, his screenplay is the best thing about Thief of Hearts, so you know the movie is in trouble.

It’s based on an interesting idea: A thief (Steven Bauer) absconds with the diaries of an attractive, upscale interior designer (Barbara Williams). He reads them and becomes obsessed with her written fantasies. He meets her (without tipping his hand), and courts her by miraculously seeming to be her perfect man.

Perhaps Brian De Palma could have made something sinister and kinky out of that situation. Stewart comes up with nothing more than a sexy fashion show, with great-looking people drinking white wine in fancy restaurants, in bathtubs, in sailboats, with witless “comic relief” provided by sidekicks (played by George Wendt and Christine Ebersole).

This movie falls squarely into a filmmaking tradition that descends (and I do mean descends) from the superficial sensibility of Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo. All is surface in these films: The characters seem to be more entranced with their own sleek images than with the other people on the screen. It’s a dispiriting, narcissistic trend.

Two offscreen people have been important in formulating this movement (both Italian, oddly enough): Giorgio Moroder, whose music gave a soulless throb to Gigolo, Cat People, and Flashdance, and Ferdinando Scarfiotti, a “visual consultant” (gee, didn’t these people used to be called art directors?), also an alumnus of American Gigolo.

Moroder is not involved with Thief of Hearts, but Harold Faltenmeyer’s score is an obvious rip-off of electronic Moroder motifs. Scarfiotti serves as visual consultant, and he gives San Francisco a weird, fashion-plate look similar to his New Orleans for Cat People and Miami for Scarface. Maybe he’s intent on making all the major American cities look like alien landscapes.

Stewart uses these stylish production values to little end: He has no flair with the camera, and his actors are uncompelling. Bauer, who made a solid debut in De Palma’s Scarface, can’t quite forget how handsome he is. Barbara Williams actually has the central role—the movie is really about her marriage, with the dalliance with the black-clad thief a temptation—and she has an attractive, if damagingly low-key, personality.

John Getz is okay in an utterly thankless wimpy husband role (he’s the author of children’s books, for cryin’ out loud), and David Caruso, the red-headed scaredy-cat from An Officer, is effectively nervy as Bauer’s punked-out partner in crime.

I didn’t really hate this film while I was watching it. It’s not boring, and it’s pretty to look at. But you know, at the climax of a film, whether or not it’s hooked you. This made up my mind about just how bad this movie was: At the juicy end of Thief of Hearts, I just didn’t care two figs what happened to any of these people.

First published in the Herald, October 24, 1984

The movie didn’t do well, and didn’t launch its leads into top stardom. Barbara Williams, who has an interesting face, is married to Tom Hayden; Bauer was married to Melanie Griffith in the 80s.