' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Personal Best

Friday, August 03, 2012

Friday's Old Fashioned: Personal Best

Noted screenwriter Robert Towne is an avid athletics man and "Personal Best", doubling as his directorial debut, is a truly admirable effort, a film in which he boldly attempts to encapsulate a Relationship Movie into a Sports Movie. This is not the cliche where we see the spouse lingering in underlit doorways at home, alternately resisting and encouraging the coach's obsession (see: Patricia Clarkson in "Miracle"), no, "Personal Best" tries to find something deeper and truer. Tragically, however, it gets all tangled up in those attempts.


Recently at the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials there was an unfortunate situation in which two female sprinters - Jeneba Tarmoh and Allyson Felix - tied - literally tied - for the third place in the 100 meter dash. What was most interesting to me wasn't the brou-ha-ha to follow in which the U.S. Track & Field Association was outed as not having a plan in place for a tie, but the fact that Tarmoh and Felix were training partners. Two pals who no doubt have worked out together countless minutes and hours and days over the past four years for this one moment and now......they were inexplicably, ingloriously linked. Now, imagine you took that scenario and then re-imagined that the two ladies in question were in a relationship. Wouldn't that make it even MORE intense? Yikes! That, in a way, is "Personal Best."

Chris Cahill (Mariel Hemingway) is a hurdler coached by her domineering dad. She fails to qualify for the Olympics at the '76 trials but finds herself taken under the wing of Tory Skinner (real life athlete Patrice Donnelly), a pentathlete. (The pentathlon consisted of the long jump, high jump, shot put, hurdles and 800 meters. It has since been re-christened as the Heptathlon.) Tory, of course, sees something in Chris that no one else does and convinces her requisitely hardscrabble coach Tingloff (Scott Glenn), against his better judgment, to take her on. But Tory doesn't simply see something in Chris on the track, she sees something in her off it. Chris reciprocates the feeling. They begin a relationship and move in together and Towne handles this matter-of-factly, without shock and awe, just two people - regardless of sexual orientation - who dig each other. Kudos to him.


Drama arises when Tingloff suggests Chris switch from hurdles to pentathlon. Naturally this would put the couple at competitive odds, and before long that transitions from the track to the home front. And yet Tory can never quite bring herself to be TOO angry with Chris because merely as a track-person, she understands Chris's skills in the event are too good to be put too waste because of a peskily li'l thing like love.

That, I suspect, is what Towne yearns to convey, to show how incestuous this track culture can be, how they all sort of pair off and break apart and pair up again, and how the running and jumping and throwing, whether they know it or not, whether they want it to or not, rules and overrides all. But the structure of the film - jumping back and forth from the track to the home front - is clumsy and that makes it feel dramatically inert. So, too, is the lead performance of Hemingway problematic. Three years removed from her wondrous work as a mature if still little girl in "Manhattan", she is unable to convey her monumental undertaking. Too often it's as if she's going through a rigorous application process to work at Santaland in Macy's than the freaking Olympic Games.

But the film's greatest downfall occurs in the wake of the inevitable break-up between Tory and Chris when Towne has Chris Meet Cute in the pool with the kindly water polo player Denny Stites (Kenny Moore). Kenny Moore may have been a fantastic real life runner and he may be a fantastic writer, but his acting is so lethargic that half his line-readings border on un-intelligible. There is no genuine spark between the characters and, even worse, it potentially underscores the notion that Chris needs someone in her life to succeed but that she needs a man as opposed to a woman to succeed. I have no doubt - none whatsoever - that Towne did not mean it that way but, my God - my God - is it easy to read it that way.


There is a moment at the Olympic Trials when Chris, struggling mightily after her first two events, all the way back in sixth place, and in danger of not making the top three and, in turn, the Olympic team dashes over to find Denny in the stands. He gives encouragement and advice. Suddenly, she is sunny with a smile. She turns things around. She finishes first. She goes to the Olympics. (But, you know, not really. This is would have been the trials for Moscow. To quote Pete Hornberger: "Stupid peanut farmer.") And, thus, that tried and not necessarily true movie maxim re-rears its frustrating face - without a relationship, you're dead in the water.

This Chris Cahill would have been so much tougher.

1 comment:

flixchatter.net said...

I've never even heard of this film before, but not too interested after reading your review. I've only seen Mariel Hemingway in 'Lipstick.' Have you seen it? I think her sister Margaux is in it too, it's a revenge thriller from the mid 70s. I didn't think she's a particularly compelling actress.