Poor Roy Scheider. He's becoming better known in his later years for his lean build and deep leather tan than his acting performances, and doing a piece of teen trash like "Listen to Me" isn't going to help.
Is this really the guy who was twice nominated for Oscars, and whose sympathetic performances propelled such fine movie fare as "All That Jazz," "Jaws," "2010" and others? He literally walks through this role as if he doesn't care about it at all - and consequently the audience isn't likely to care much either.Scheider, who actually has a supporting role here, plays a debate coach for fictional Kenmont College, where debate is prized over sports and where some of the nation's top students debate to prep themselves for political careers.
As the film builds toward the obvious climax, "Listen to Me" becomes a sort of "Rocky Does Debate," in a fashion similar to last year's "Stand and Deliver," which could be described as "Rocky Does Calculus," "
The difference is that "Stand and Deliver" was about a unique teacher and his troubled students, and the film developed rich, wonderful characters the audience could easily care about and identify with.
"Listen to Me" isn't about anything really, and it's a movie that feels throughout like a bunch of overbearing actors reading lines - it never seems real.
The story has two underprivileged but talented debaters - Kirk Cameron as the spunky son of an Oklahoma chicken farmer and Jami Gertz as the shy daughter of a bar owner - winning full scholarships to the aforementioned college.
There they are taken under the wing of Scheider, himself a former top debater from the school, and they team up with others, including a crippled girl who doesn't want to be considered handicapped and a poor little rich boy who wants to be a writer but whose senator-father insists he follow the family tradition and enter politics.
Cameron is alternately charming and obnoxious as the overzealous, cocky kid who aspires to no less than the presidency as his life goal, and the other actors are equally smug in their representations of what we are supposed to look upon as the future of America.
Even the debating scenes ring false, as their coach encourages the kids to make up lies as personal-testimony stories when they feel they are losing a debate, and as the kids vacillate between sides of an issue without any true conviction on their own part. I understand that part of learning to debate well means being able to take either side of a controversial issue, but even in their most private moments these kids don't seem to have any honest views or values.
The only actor who comes out unscathed is Jami Gertz, whose sympathetic portrait of a troubled overachiever is the film's one bright spot. But even she has trouble when she is required to make a speech at the end that supposedly comes from the heart, but which the audience isn't supposed to know is real.
Writer-director Douglas Day Stewart, best known for his "An Officer and a Gentleman" and "The Blue Lagoon" screenplays, also wrote and directed "Thief of Hearts." Those films are all uncomfortable mixes of modern-day sensibilities and old-fashioned sentiment, and Stewart is no more comfortable with "Listen to Me," most significantly in an ill-conceived attempted rape sequence that occurs late in the film.
The subject for the big debate, by the way, is Roe vs. Wade, the controversial abortion issue presently before the Supreme Court, and the finale is done before the justices themselves, a silly contrivance that is almost as cliched as the many other plot devices here.
If you really want to see a well-made dramatic examination of abortion, watch the TV movie "Roe vs. Wade" Sunday night. It's a much more intelligent look at the same material.
"Listen to Me" should be titled "Shut Up." It's rated PG-13 for scenes of violence, profanity, sex and brief nudity.