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.


Less Than Zero

December 6, 2011

If you’ve gone to the movies in recent months, you may have noticed a series of anti-drug public service announcements that have been tacked onto a few major-studio releases.

These announcements come on just before the film starts, and feature a Hollywood star—Clint Eastwood, James Woods, etc.—briefly warning moviegoers about the dangers of crack cocaine.

Less Than Zero also carries one of these spots, featuring Rae Dawn Chong. Rarely has the anti-drug message seemed more redundant: Less Than Zero gives us better than 90 minutes of college-aged kids relentlessly self-destructing, primarily with cocaine. If anyone misses the point, they’re missing the movie.

Less Than Zero is based on the recent novel by Bret Easton Ellis. Ellis took a bit of flak because some critics thought he was endorsing the decadent lifestyle of his dead-end kids. The movie, adapted by Harley Peyton and directed by Marek Kanievska, is at some pains to disapprove of its characters’ emptiness. There’s nothing attractive about these people; they’re a real drag.

The main action whirls around three friends from high school, now older and in more trouble, during a Christmas vacation. Andrew McCarthy plays a college boy, home in Los Angeles for the holidays; Jami Gertz is his former girlfriend; she’s now taken up with Robert Downey, Jr., the other side of the triangle. All come from wealthy Beverly Hills families, and all seem utterly lost.

The most immediate problem is Downey’s reckless drug habit, which has gotten him $50,000 into debt with a classmate/dealer (James Spader). McCarthy and Gertz aim to save him before the downward spiral is complete.

The movie is correct, I suppose, in steadfastly portraying these lives as unpleasant. But this method gives little hint of why people would behave this way; there must be something, even superficially, attractive about their rounds of parties, sex, and altered states of consciousness, just as there is inevitably the hangover.

Every now and then Kanievska gives us an image that suggests the tenor of this existence; when McCarthy returns home to his parents’ ludicrously lavish home, there’s a close-up of his hand dipping into a dish of red and green jellybeans, and somehow we sense the awful hollowness of this degree of wealth. However, there’s not enough to explain the basic unhappiness of these kids.

Kanievska, who made Another Country with some style, can’t really make style count for much in this film. There are a number of grabby, pretty compositions that suggest loneliness: Downey shivering on a rock at the seaside, or flopped on a lounge chair with all of Los Angeles spread out below. But after a while it’s just poster art.

The movie would click more often if it were more compellingly played. Gertz is pretty but doesn’t exude the kind of intelligence that’s called for, and McCarthy’s sensitivity thing is getting rather well-worn. Only Downey, lately seen as The Pick-Up Artist, connects; his hyperactive junkie, at least, has a measure of depth to his despair. The film, for all the appalling behavior it contains, needs to sink to his level more often.

First published in the Herald, November 8, 1987

Well it had Downey and Spader, anyway. The movie was a single-note stiff, and as for the anti-drug previews, I can’t remember them at all. I’m not sure the use of Rae Dawn Chong in a Just Say No ad balances the scales for all those Cheech & Chong movies, but you can see where they were going with that.


August 8, 2011

Bacon, Fishburne, headgear

Here’s a story for you: A young, hotshot stockbroker loses everything in one disastrous day at the market, then becomes a bicycle messenger and destroys a leading New York dope dealer.

Sound far-fetched? Absurd? Believe it or not, people get paid huge amounts of money for ideas such as this. In the case of Tom Donnelly, who wrote Quicksilver, he was even allowed to direct the danged thing (it’s his first film).

The hero (Kevin Bacon, from Diner and Footloose), who begins the film with a very bad fake mustache, drops a wad on Wall Street one day. When asked what happened to all his money, he replies, “Nothing happened to it. The money’s still there, it just belongs to somebody else now.”

Actually, he feels pretty rotten, especially because he blew his parents’ life savings, not to mention his own.

So, for some reason, Bacon scans the want ads and decides that the exciting world of bicycle message-delivering is the career for him. He takes to the streets and delivers messages through the brutal New York City traffic. See, he’s lost his nerve for the big time so he consoles himself with the heady rush of dodging cars.

While on the job, he meets some people who, I suspect, are intended to be warm and wonderful characters. Hector (Paul Rodriguez) dreams someday of owning a chain of hot dog stands. Bacon looks at him and says, “You are one optimistic Mexican,” which seems an accurate comment.

Bacon also meets a cute young thing (Jami Gertz) who foolishly gets involved delivering drugs for a bad dude (Rudy Ramos) who never seems to get out of his car. She says her parents are in Vegas as the opening act for Frank Sinatra, but we sense that this is merely a brassy subterfuge to cover up her deeper feelings. It is.

All of this leads to Bacon going back out on the stock market floor, kicking a little you-know-what and then cornering the dope pusher and doing the same with him.

It’s a strange film, full of loose ends and unmotivated actions, and the whole subplot of the drug dealer appears to have been grafted onto the story after the first few drafts of the screenplay, to add a little blood and guts to the goings-on.

There are, of course, a few sequences that are available to be lifted intact for music videos, including the obligatory Giorgio Moroder (he scored Flashdance) tune, this time sung by Roger Daltrey, who really should know better.

As for Bacon—well, he’s still a likable sort, but he should choose projects that are more like movies than mere star vehicles. This particular vehicle is as light as his high-speed bike.

First published in the Herald, February 15, 1986

A quintessential Eighties title, not nearly as much fun to sit through as it sounds like it might be. Once again I fail to mention Larry Fishburne in the case, although this has more to do with the movie than the actor. The Moroder song has a de rigueur quality to it, as Hollywood admitted that MTV was in charge. Bacon, of course, has made his career in not being a likable sort, so I don’t know why I said that.