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Listen to Me
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by Jack Sommersby

"'Listen' Here -- Stay Clear of This Mess"
2 stars

Grossing a mere $4,299,023 at the U.S. box office, it likely didn't catch on due to its atypical subject matter, but bad word-of-mouth certainly didn't help.

Listen to Me is about the trails and tribulations of a couple of freshmen students who’ve received full scholarships to a fancy California university specializing in Debate, and it’s to the movie’s considerable discredit that neither is nearly as interesting as a few of the supporting characters, which winds up leaving a crater-size hole at the center of things in that we’re practically having to look at the periphery for interest. The two students are Tucker Muldowney (Kirk Cameron), a dirt-poor Oklahoma boy who spent some time in reform school, and Monica Tomanski (Jami Gertz), a girl from Chicago with a chip on her shoulder the size of Mount Everest; they work in the school cafeteria for extra money; it’s clear they’re attracted to each other, but Monica politely spurns Tucker’s advances, insisting she needs to put her studies first before entertaining the prospect of romance, but it’s clear there’s more to it than that. Their no-nonsense coach is the tenured Charlie Nichols (Roy Scheider), who’s taken the school to several major championships yet has been feeling pressure from the dean being that the last two years only garnered second-place finishes; and the star student is the senior Garson McKellan (Tim Quill), the son of a wealthy senator who donates huge amounts of money to the school and has pressured his son to remain focused on debate in the hope of him becoming a politician later on down the line (we’re informed that eighty-eight percent of congressmen and senators were on their college debate teams). Tucker and Garson are roommates in their dorm, and Tucker is enamored of Garson not necessarily because of his wealth (though he is impressed with his red convertible sports car and fancy champagne he keeps in their mini-fridge) but because he’s the best debater he’s ever seen (he’s studied every one of his debates on videotape). And we’d like to believe in Garson’s supposed brilliance, but the movie initially mucks this up when Garson debates another senior on the topic of abstinence in an open outside forum for the new students, and the opposing debater presents such an outlandishly inept argument that we’re left wondering, “This is the kind of student the school is churning out?” And this is a symptom of the movie’s chief weakness in that contextually all of the debates wouldn’t past muster with so much as a first-year high-school debate class. Still, Garson, with charisma and a born instinct for the power of inflection and phrase, comes off as a real stalwart, but he admits to being a natural at debate without having a real love for it -- his real passion is writing, and he’s spent the summer working on a play he’s hoping will win Charlie's approval; if Charlie will admit it has true merit, Garson is more than willing to drop out of school and pursue his lifelong dream. Charlie, though, knows he can’t have a winning season without Garson, and he allows himself to be manipulated by the dean and Garson’s father to keep Garson’s focus on school, especially with the prospect of debating in front of the Supreme Court on the topic of abortion in front of a televised audience for the first national championship in fifteen years.

The Garson chararcter alone would be more than adequate for a motion picture, with Quill demonstrating the range and screen presence of a major actor. (We’re even willing to excuse his voice that gets whiny when he’s at his most dramatic; it were as if he’d gulped a can of WD-40 before these takes.) Yet the movie unwisely keeps swinging back to Tucker and Monica, and they’re simply too insubstantial to retain much interest. (It doesn’t help that in their debates Tucker is overly animated and Monica has no breath control, two demerits any debate coach would tear them limb for limb over.) To be fair, Cameron, a former TV-sitcom actor, is a bit more bearable and flexible than usual, and he manages a fairly creditable southern accent, but he’s trying to do too much -- he treats his every close-up as if it were an aria, and he sticks out like a figure in a pop-up book; he lacks the confidence that the camera will reach in and capture the performance. And Gertz, the most wooden actress since Ali McGraw, is humorless and obvious from the get-go, so when Monica eventually opens up about a tumultuous event from her past she might as well be reading off a grocery list. (Why does she keep getting cast in A-list features? Does she have blackmail material on someone?) But even first-rate actors couldn’t alleviate the built-in contrivances and dramatic shortcuts in these roles, and most of the blame falls on the shoulders of the writer/director Douglas Day Stewart, who wrote the fine An Officer and a Gentleman and wrote and directed the slightly underrated crime thriller Thief of Hearts, but whose level of invention here is about on the level of the unintentionally hilarious The Blue Lagoon that marked his screenwriting debut. Stewart is incapable of resisting going for the easy effect, which is all the more noticeable in that his movie is set in a higher-learning institution. There’s a disposable subplot concerning a physically handicapped student (adequately played by Amanda Peterson of Can’t Buy Me Love) having to overcome her social insecurities, and Garson’s doomed demise is blatantly telegraphed with jackhammer-like subtlety. And it’s during the Supreme Court debate that Stewart really embarrasses himself, with Tucker engaging in a pro-abortion stance arguing “We have lost the backbone of our Founding Fathers in lieu of a consumer culture” that’s so palpably absurd there’s no way any one of the Justices would be even remotely persuaded by it. Listen to Me is a mess and hasn’t so much as an iota of substance that the affecting medical-school drama Gross Anatomy, which was released just a few months prior, had in conveying the difference a teacher can make. It’s calculated, pompous, preachy stuff that doesn’t enlighten so much as it insults -- you have to check your brain at the door just so you’re not prone to throwing stuff at the screen in retaliation for all the dumbing-down. It’s not a complete waste in that it retains some semblances of interest, and it goes by in a flash thanks to the assured pacing. I don’t know how, but Stewart was able to wrangle the efforts of one of the best editors in the business, Anne V. Coates (Lawrence of Arabia), and she’s able to miraculously give the proceedings a bit more professionalism than it even remotely deserves.

For all you one or two fans of the movie, it's not yet available on DVD. Darn.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=29142&reviewer=327
originally posted: 05/22/15 08:46:40
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  05-May-1989 (PG-13)

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