Love and bore

The apolitical, unfunny, and curiously nonsexy Speechless is one big missed opportunity

Kevin and Julia bicker away, sometimes winning big laughs through inflection and body language, but because the words themselves could be spoken by any lovers in any movie, there's no resonance to their confrontations. There's nothing to suggest why either of them do what they do, and as a result, there's no way to tell what each of them sees in the other.

What I'm bemoaning here isn't necessarily a lack of politics, although including more than a handful of generic epithets ("Heartless conservative thug!" "Knee-jerk liberal!") probably would have enhanced a film set during a brutal senatorial race. (And if some prominent executive at MGM told the filmmakers to ixnay the oliticspay, they must have forgotten that from Oliver Stone and Michael Douglas to P.J. O'Rourke and Doonesbury, Americans have never resented the fusion of politics and entertainment, provided it's handled with panache--and they're probably more aware that the two are inseparable than either politicians or entertainers would like to admit. Viewers don't hate political movies; they just hate boring movies.)

What I'm bemoaning is an absence of passion for politics--of passion, period. James Carville and Mary Matalin have passion for what they do. Granted, they're an obvious example, given the subject of Speechless (although the press kit takes pains to note that the script was written in 1989, long before the Clinton-Bush race). But because Carville and Matalin are protagonists of their own ongoing real-life movie, they're also relevant ones. Whether you believe they're true partisans who fight like Dobermans on behalf of their respective masters or mercenary hacks who'd work for Stalin if the money was right, it's impossible to deny that they love their jobs. They get a contact high from devising attack plans, defusing crises, and digging dirt. They're political animals who enjoy rutting with enemy species--a cobra and mongoose in love.

The heroes of fictional screwball comedies display this same variety of pure, driving, almost amoral passion--like the journalist lovers of His Girl Friday, who are tough and sharp and obsessed with their work. They might be fighting to get an innocent man off death row, but it's the fight that riles them up, not the cause; when the inmate tries to make human, emotional contact with them, they roll over him like monster trucks, because they're too in love to bother with propriety. They want each others' bodies because they respect each others' minds, and anybody who gets in the way is a doomed rube. Their egos direct their loins.

Speechless gets the aforementioned equation--practically screwball comedy's primary theorem--backwards. Because actual political issues--the specific, topical kind that conceivably could trigger personal associations in the minds of viewers--have been whited out of the screenplay, there's nothing left for Kevin and Julia to base their relationship on, or to work their relationship around. Without specific details, only actorly enthusiasm and a credible matchup of interesting lovers can hold your attention, and Speechless isn't sophisticated or confident enough to provide those qualities. Keaton and Davis look stranded; reaching for our sympathy and interest without any well of detail to draw from, they're audioanimatronic puppets trying to project warmth.

For all their slapstick gyrations, and for all of the screenplay's rote narrative twists (including an 11th-hour misunderstanding involving an alleged dirty trick by Julia that even a five-year-old could tell she had too much class to commit), we never feel that these characters get an adrenaline rush from listening to each other speak. We're told that they're crazy about each other, but we're never shown it. All we can see with our own eyes is two mismatched people who scrupulously avoid talking about the thing around which their very lives revolve.

What comes between the lovers in Speechless is the same stuff that comes between all lovers in all unimaginative romantic comedies. What should have come between them is their job, and their passion for their job, instead of scriptwriters' contrivances. A good example of a film that manages this feat is Broadcast News, which gave us three central characters who cared deeply about their work--so deeply that everything else in their lives suffered in comparison. (William Hurt's character might have had ethical problems, but he was very good at his job, and we saw him working hard at it.)

In contrast, from frame one of Speechless, not only do we suspect that neither of the lovers particularly likes what he does, we're actually told so. They're just biding their time, they say--until some task more worthy of their latent greatness presents itself, and the script endorses their smirky superiority by making both senatorial candidates equally corrupt, equally shallow, and equally stupid.

If the heroes don't care about what they do--if they treat it as a joke, a sham, as something that's morally and intellectually beneath them--and if the film doesn't care either, why should we?

It's ironic and unfortunately appropriate that the opening credits unfold over a flock of bobbing red, white, and blue helium balloons; it cues you to expect something bright and disposable and hollow, and to reach for your stickpin.

Speechless. MGM. Geena Davis, Michael Keaton. Script by Ron Carter. Direction by Ron Underwood. Opens December 16.

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