Talking Turker

If you've ever watched a junior high school theatrical production of a venerable, time-honored play in which no one gets anything quite right -- not the acting, not the sets, not the direction -- then you'll recognize the discomfort caused by the off-pitch romantic comedy Speechless. Screenwriter Robert King (author of such big-screen classics as Silk 2, Blood Fist, and the unforgettable Dana Carvey vehicle Clean Slate) and director Ron Underwood (who showed promise with Tremors, hit the commercial jackpot with City Slickers, then tanked with the insipid Heart and Souls) shoot for a romantic comedy with the wit and style of Frank Capra's It Happened One Night but end up with a misfire more along the lines of the failed Julia Roberts-Nick Nolte duet, I Love Trouble.

King's story parallels the real-life love campaign of James Carville and Mary Matalin, although King wrote his screenplay prior to the 1992 presidential election during which Carville and Matalin doctored spin for Bill Clinton and George Bush, respectively. They say politics makes for strange bedfellows; Speechless takes the aphorism literally. Sparks fly when Kevin Vallick (Michael Keaton) and Julia Mann (Geena Davis) meet in an all-night convenience store and have one of those contrived, only-in-the-movies debates over who deserves the last bottle of Nytol (they both have insomnia, see; they toss and turn all night and use the same cute tricks to try to make themselves fall asleep so that we know they're a match for each other even before they do).

Of course they have more in common than insomnia. They don't know it yet, but they are both speechwriters -- for opposing U.S. senatorial candidates from New Mexico. Even more saccharine than the traits they have in common are their differences. He's a hardened cynic who scripts a cheesy TV sit-com, a mercenary who doesn't even know the name of the man he'll be writing speeches for when he joins the staff. She's an idealist who genuinely believes her candidate superior. The Nytol confrontation is followed by a chance meeting in a restaurant that leads to a date that leads to a clandestine meeting that leads to a big makeout scene in a car that is supposed to be hilarious because A) Julia is the aggressor and B) their passionate thrashing disengages the emergency brake and the car starts to roll away. Gee, I bet you never saw that before.

Naturally, nothing untoward happens to them when the car starts to drift. They just needed a silly plot device to keep them from consummating their relationship long enough for them to discover each other's real jobs, thus imbuing the story with a little conflict to spice things up. Each feels deceived by the other; the love match becomes a rivalry with Kevin and Julia spouting off at each other through the words they put in their respective candidate's mouth.

More complications arise with incredibly bad timing, as complications are wont to do in a movie such as this, wherein, in an effort to emulate the madcap twists and turns of romantic comedies of the Thirties and Forties, plausibility heads south. The press secretary who hires Kevin is his ex-wife, Annette (Bonnie Bedelia), who still carries a torch for him. Julia's ex-boyfriend, dashing network TV reporter "Baghdad Bob" Freed (Christopher Reeve), surprises her with a marriage proposal. Baghdad Bob is obviously a lightweight -- he's a TV newsman, after all -- so, on the surface of it, there is no suspense as to who will win Julia's heart in the long run. The rivalry takes on added significance when you ponder the subtext, however. Through their cunning casting, the movie's wily producers have made Julia the prize in a battle with ramifications far beyond that of speechwriter versus TV reporter. Julia must answer that bewildering, decades-old question: Who do you like better, Batman or Superman?

Not to disparage Geena Davis or Michael Keaton, but both are former television actors who have found a niche in cinema. Yes, they've each evinced some dramatic potential; supporters would point to his Clean and Sober and her Thelma and Louise, but somehow I can't picture De Niro, Pacino, or Emma Thompson losing any sleep over the competition. Still, this pair's metier is lightweight comedy.

This is, after all, Geena Davis, not Bette Davis. The depth question aside, the easy Earthgirl is as lovely as ever. Keaton and Reeve, by contrast, are looking a bit long in the tooth for leading-man duties. Davis, mercifully, reins in her loopy side; if she had played her usual ditzy self, the already self-consciously zany plot machinations would have been overkill. Keaton is competent and engaging; he has pretty much honed his familiar wisecracking everyman shtick to post-Letterman perfection.

All in all, despite some witty repartee and the welcome presence of a strong female lead, it's the same old same old. Boy meets girl. Obstacles crop up. Love conquers all. The filmmakers have in mind the classic romantic comedies of Cary Grant and Kate Hepburn; what they're putting on-screen more closely resembles the TV situation comedies of Tony Danza and Kate Jackson.

 
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