My initial impulse as I sat through the droning minutes of Personal Foul was to give the film a pass. Not give it any stars, but a pass. Also, when I say droning, I mean droning. The film’s music is a set of three or four songs by folk singer Greg Brown (and friends) on repeat. One of them even has a better title in the chorus than Personal Foul. I can’t remember; I was worried if I committed the songs to memory they might never leave.
There’s a lot of use of the songs. Lots of montages. Sometimes the songs are just over leads Adam Arkin and David Morse living their lives, Arkin a dissatisfied school teacher, Morse a very unromantic drifter (he lives out of his truck), and sometimes it’s over the drama as a woman (Susan Wheeler Duff) comes between Arkin and Morse’s burgeoning friendship. And sometimes it’s just over them playing basketball. Because Personal Foul, for the first half anyway, is all about how a bond basketball makes no man can tear asunder.
Duff is one of Arkin’s coworkers; a lot of the film takes place in the school, just because it gives the film something to do. Director Lichtenheld loves the basketball and the montages, but does seem to know he occasionally needs to have scenes. They don’t really have any momentum—the biggest plot thread in the first half no lives school administrator F. William Parker, who Arkin bullies and encourages others to bully, but it’s actually got zilch to do with the eventual story.
Lichtenheld shows a lot about Morse’s current life, making paper flowers to sell on the street, which leads to Arkin bringing him into school to teach an art class and Morse realizing he’s got the potential for real human connection and whatnot (while also introducing Duff to Morse). But we never even know if Arkin realizes Morse is living in a truck in front of his house. Men, even men who play basketball together, do not speak of such things. Though Personal Foul could be a lot more insensitive… well, then it gets more insensitive and it turns out it will be more insensitive. Just maybe not in exactly the ways Lichtenheld forecast he was going to do it.
The third act involves Duff revealing she has some machinations going on as far as the love triangle, which is barely implied in the story—director Lichtenheld doesn’t seem to have an understanding of actor chemistry, especially not since Duff and Morse were (and still are as of this writing) married and have oodles of it while Arkin and Duff have an inverse chemistry thing going.
The machinations are extremely cringe and Lichtenheld doesn’t seem to understand them. He’s taking a story with a terrible female characterization if it were summer vacation crushes and thoughtlessly scaling it up to thirty-somethings. Some of Personal Foul can get a pass. The third act with Duff cannot.
Arkin ransoming information about “friend” Morse cannot.
There’s also some weird thing going on with Duff being from Texas. It makes very little sense, other than to imply she’s just a good country woman looking for a husband or something.
At its “best,” Foul provides some interesting acting opportunities for Morse and Arkin. Not interesting roles or overall performances, but the occasional moment in a scene, you can see the actors working.
Is it enough of a reason to watch Personal Foul? Heavens no.
Though if you’re directing a movie with any basketball in it whatsoever, Personal Foul might be a must watch for things to never ever do when shooting a basketball game.
Written, produced, and directed by Ted Lichtenfeld; director of photography, John LeBlanc; edited by Steve Mullenix; music by Greg Brown; costume designer, Elizabeth Palmer.
Starring David Morse (Ben), Adam Arkin (Jeremy), Susan Wheeler Duff (Lisa), and F. William Parker (Lester).