"Ice Castles," opening today, has been shamelessly, and none too slickly, engineered to empty the tear ducts of customers primed to blubber at the sight of a Pavlovian cliche. It's a matter of putting susceptible patrons in the mood rather than building a respectable dramatic framework for a good cleansing sob.
Writer-director Donald Wrye and co-writer Gary L. Baim must have envisioned theater ushers standing by with towels and Kleenex between shows. Something obviously prevented them from condescending to make sense of the story and the characters' motivations.
This confused, ramshackle tearjerker, ostensibly an inspirational sporting romance about a teen-age figure skater who learns to skate again after being blinded, never justifies an honest emotion on its own terms. It merely blunders around trying to resemble the sort of movies folks have been known to cry at.
At bottom the filmmakers are suffering from a pitiable, and I hope treatable, compulsion to outshame "Love Story." The derivative tendency has been aggravated by arbitrary, unassimilated cribs from a bunch of other movies -- "The Other Side of the Mountain," "The Turning Point," "The Miracle Worker" (this one is really infuriating), "Slap Shot," "Rocky," "One on One."
Certain casting selections amplofy the derivative vibes. Tom Skerritt, the father of "Turning Point," is used as the heroine's widowed, supposedly overprotective dad, who seems weirdly laid-back for an Iowa farmer the way Skerritt plays him. Robby Benson, the star of "One on One," turns up as the heroine's smalltown sweetheart, an innocuous birdbrain who supposedly drops out of med school to play minor league hockey and then fecklessly drops that before returning to patch up a lover's quarrel and bullying the heroine into skating like a contender again.
It's a pity Wrye and Baim hadn't seen "Movie Movie." They could have shown Benson's character becoming an instant hockey star or eye surgeon to help cure the girl of blindness. For a while I was certain that he was going to prove his mettle by suggesting that they become a championship-caliber doubles team. These developments would have been no more preposterous -- and infinitely more satisfying -- than the events actually depicted in "Ice Castles."
The heroine, attractively embodied by a 19-year-old professional skater, Lynn-Holly Johnson, as long as she's permitted to stay in motion and protected from soliciting tender feelings or speaking nitwit lines, is supposed to be a smalltown phenom who has a meteoric athletic career. Spotted and exploited by an ambitious coach (Jennifer Warren), the heroine rapidly becomes a media sensation, appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated and headlining a TV special before she even wins a major competition or perfects her school figures.
After slipping during an attempted triple and cracking her skull, this skating Cinderella is evidently forgotten so fast that no one outside her hometown -- not even the presumably interested parties at Sports Illustrated -- discovers that she's lost most of her sight. This convenient journalistic oversight allows her to make a heartrending guest appearance at the following year's Midwest Regionals, where she skates like a dream without the audience realizing that she can't see .
The absurdity of it all is truly mind-boggling, not to mention sentimentally counter-productive. Quite apart from the impossibility of concealing the heroine's blindness, why should it ever be concealed? Why shouldn't skating fans and other blind kids be informed of her rehabilitation and relish her comeback performance all the more? Only hack filmmakers need these nonsensical deceptions, which degrade the forms of courage and perseverance they pretend to honor.
As if enough weren't enough, Lynn-Holly Johnson is required to murmur "Thanks for being my daddy" to Skerritt right before she goes on the ice and "Here's for mom" an instant before she starts her routine. Moviegoers have nothing to thank the purveyors of such drivel for. Indeed,the wayward continuity and wholesale borrowing that distinguish "Ice Castles" have a maddening effect long before the denouement drives you crazy.
Even if you haven't budged from your seat, you think that you must have stepped out and missed key scenes. From one sequence to the next you're never sue what movie this is. Perhaps Wrye, who made a certain splash with TV movies like "Born Innocent," "Death Be Not Proud" (with Benson) and "It Happened One Christmas," was thinking ahead. It's as if he took it for granted that people will forget the plot of "Ice Castles" during the commercial breaks.