One On One is an oddly affecting little film about a college basketball player. It manages to go off in all the wrong directions—failing specifically to deal with its stated theme, the abuse of college athletes—yet it succeeds as a touching portrait of traditional young love.
Our attractive sweethearts are Robby Benson, a 20-year-old who possesses such a gee-whiz countenance that he could only have spent his formative years residing in a Cracker Jack box, and the comely Annette O'Toole, who has caught on that no matter how pretty she is, she cannot go one-on-one with Benson's baby face. So, very adroitly, she plays Wendy to his Peter Pan. The third principal is G. D. Spradlin, who portrays the Western U. monster-coach (above, with Benson), so villainous a creation that any player would leave Western straightaway in order to play under benign, softhearted Bobby Knight.
Benson, who wrote the script in collaboration with his father, plays Henry Steele, an innocent freshman, while Miss O'Toole is Janet Hays, a grad student who is apparently taking her masters in The Golden Age of Haight-Ashbury. Hindered by these dreadful caricatures, the two nonetheless play their parts well enough to beat the spread. Unfortunately, Spradlin is such an unbelievable snake that he has no alternative but to overact.
The problem with the story is that while it starts out to be a hard-hitting exposé of big-time college athletics, it ends up as a trite old set piece about a country mouse coming to the city—Los Angeles, in this case. To be sure, we are shown how recruits get cars and other payoffs but so too must we suffer through little Henry encountering (with proper dismay) teen-age hustlers, amorous older secretaries, cocaine parties, tight jeans, pseudointellectuals and other staples of Los Angeles. As far as big-time athletics is concerned, Henry seems to think it's all just dandy until he gets benched. There is no apparent conflict in his mind, and the only real confrontation is the primitive one between coach and player.
USC and UCLA both refused to let their campuses be appropriated for the filming (Colorado State was used), and I can't say I blame these universities because the story is not honest revelation but overblown fiction. Coaches like the one Spradlin plays simply don't exist, and the scene in which he imports a goon to beat up Steele destroys all credibility. Literary license is one thing, but it is not nit-picking to ask that "realistic" sports films make some effort to get the structure real.
It is probably because the main plot is so ersatz that we are diverted by love. But let us praise fairly. It takes an adult with a strong stomach to tolerate any Hollywood adolescent affection (most especially one sicklied o'er with drippy Seals & Crofts confections); nonetheless, only a grouch would not root for the Benson-O'Toole team. You see: opposites attract! They meet because, although she is gorgeous, barely his senior and virulently despises all athletic "animals," the Western U. athletic department assigns her to tutor the numb-brained letter-sweaterer in her bedroom apartment (we were talking about literary license). But it works. I was much more taken when Henry proudly finishes Moby Dick for her than by his star-spangled exploits on the court in a heroic closing sequence that would make George Gipp blush.
Robby Benson is a blue-chip actor—beguiling, vapid naiveté is not the easiest thing to portray—and while he appears to have been frightened in his sleep by bad dreams about Pistol Pete Maravich, his basketball sequences are proficient. If only he and his father had been as determined to make an authentic movie about the evils of college athletics.