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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Like Father, Like Son

April 17, 2012

We’re asked to make a pretty hefty suspension of disbelief in Like Father, Like Son. The high concept of this movie is that somehow a brain transference can be triggered by a drug, and that two people exchange personalities in the process.

Got that? Too bad if you don’t, ’cause the movie never attempts to explain it any more than that. We take it on faith that such a switcheroo could happen, and the way is cleared for the ensuing shenanigans.

This brain thing happens between a respected surgeon (Dudley Moore) and his teen-age son (Kirk Cameron, of TV’s “Growing Pains”). Suddenly, the son (in Dad’s body) is expected to make the rounds of his busy hospital. The doctor, in his son’s frame, has to attend high school (where he effortlessly takes command of the biology lectures).

That’s the concept, and it’s basically repeated until the film contrives an antidote.

It’s all impossible to relate, because when you’re talking about the son, it’s the father, and vice versa. I think. But the funniest ideas revolve around the romantic possibilities: Dad finds himself kissing a high-school girl, while Junior feels his glands percolating to a visit from the lusty wife (Margaret Colin, a funny actress) of a hospital chief of staff (Patrick O’Neal).

The movie, directed by Rod (Teen Wolf) Daniel, doesn’t really attempt anything other than dutifully laying out this series of comic situations. A couple of bits of business have some inspiration, such as Moore’s antics during a hospital staff meeting, when he chokingly lights his “first” cigarette and hocks some chewed gum into an associate’s hair.

Did I say that was the inspired part? Hmm. Ernst Lubitsch and Noel Coward may be turning in their graves. Well, that gives you some idea of the level of the rest of the movie. Actually, although Like Father, Like Son is fundamentally brainless, it’s also pretty painless.

First published in the Herald, October 1987

Yes, part of the personality-change craze of the late 1980s. The only about giving this movie a shrug because it’s not completely terrible is that it wastes Dudley Moore, and wasting Dudley Moore at this point in his career was not something that should have happened.