Love and bore

There are two kinds of bad movies: actively bad and passively bad. An actively bad one can prove perversely enjoyable. You sit there gazing up at the screen, marveling at the gap between what the filmmakers believed they were doing and what they're really giving you.

This kind of movie isn't dull. It keeps plunging forward, stumbling over its own mediocrity, providing you with unexpected pleasures along the way. Sometimes an actively bad movie is so handsomely produced, empty-headed, and morally corrupt that watching it fills you with disgust and hatred rather than delight--but again, at least you're involved.

Passively bad movies are ultimately more depressing, because nothing much of anything is happening. You keep sitting there in the dark, like a pathetic Beckett character by some moonlit roadside, hat in hand, searching the horizon, waiting in vain for entertainment to come along and remind you why you left the house that night; the film keeps unreeling, introducing with considerable flourish characters who later turn out to be irrelevant, hitting you with seemingly crucial plot twists that are subsequently dropped. Dull and unimaginative lines of dialogue are presented with great fanfare, suggesting that the filmmakers thought they'd win a laugh or a tear for sure. Logistically complicated setpieces are staged so ineptly that you're never quite sure what's happening or why it's important.

You eventually realize you aren't watching a movie, but an idea for a movie--one that never moved beyond the pitch stage.

Speechless is a passively bad film, based on a kicky premise that had every right to be developed in an interesting and original way, set in a milieu that's inherently fascinating, and stocked with talented actors who look lost and flustered and vaguely troubled, as if every last one of them can't remember if he turned off the iron before leaving the house that morning. It references many movies in many genres, but never finds its own voice. That filmmaker Ron Underwood directs with such palpable smugness, italicizing punchlines with endless reaction shots and troweling on cutesy music to let us know when to be charmed or sad or elated, only makes matters worse.

The basic premise is as old as the rules of attraction: two speechwriters working for opposing New Mexico senatorial wannabes fall in love and endure countless setbacks on the road to eventual happiness. Kevin Vallick (Michael Keaton) is a divorc who started out as a speechwriter 10 years ago, then quit soon afterward because the cynical nature of politics disgusted him; he's returned to the field after a successful stint writing for a popular TV sitcom, and now puts words into the mouth of a Republican candidate. His lover-to-be, Julia Mann (Geena Davis), serves the same function in the campaign of a well-connected incumbent Democrat.

Both insomniacs, they meet late one night in a hotel lobby convenience store (they fight over the last box of Nytol), and soon thereafter, through a series of circumstances too silly to recount here, end up sharing a late-night joyride, animated conversation, and almost-but-not-quite-sex in a parked car. They realize they're in love.

Unfortunately, there are rules against fraternization between rival politicos, and on top of that, both speechwriters carry vexing emotional baggage: she's engaged to a handsome, vain dolt of a network newscaster (Christopher Reeve, who filled this role before in Switching Channels), and Kevin still isn't sure how to deal with his hardbitten but suspiciously affectionate ex-wife and boss (Bonnie Bedelia).

The film plays the lovers' predicament mostly for broad slapstick, seeing how many laughs it can wring from the sight of Kevin and Julia rushing around hotel corridors late at night, sneaking into closets and TV control rooms to savor intimate moments alone, and telling whopping lies to the other side.

All this might make Speechless sound like a classic romantic comedy. And on a superficial level, it does have some of the right ingredients--particularly a bright, inviting production design and a couple of attractive stars with good comic timing and idiosyncratic screen personalities.

Michael Keaton has less-than-magnificent taste in material (he's better at identifying good parts than good screenplays), but he's an original--simultaneously familiar and fresh, old-fashioned and hip. No current actor comes closer to capturing the brand of steely, intuitive, fast-talking, banty-rooster charisma of Cagney, Bogart, and Edward G. Robinson. He throws his one-liners like major-league pitches, turning perfectly ordinary declarative sentences into sliders, curves, and fastballs just by pausing inappropriately, inverting key phrases, or raising his Vulcan eyebrows.

And Davis is a gifted comic actress who somehow uses her Amazonian height and curvaceous figure as a sight gag, clomping through slapstick setpieces like a woman who never quite got used to to her body after puberty. She's a hoot in straight conversation scenes, too, rolling her eyes at statements she hasn't even heard yet and spitting retorts from her mouth like watermelon seeds.

The problem isn't the stars, but the dreary material they've been saddled with. Speechless feels like it was produced on a movie genre software program--"RomanceWorks 5.0," maybe. All the timeworn elements are in place, but the movie has no soul, no fire; it's so terrified of offending or even annoying viewers with strong partisan opinions that it could just as easily have been set at a racetrack, a funeral home, or in the serving line at a high school cafeteria.

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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