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Aballoon motif floats through Speechless, director Ron Underwood’s romantic comedy about a love affair between two rival political speechwriters. Brightly colored gasbags ornament the opening credits; a key sequence is staged at a hot-air balloon rally; red, white, and blue helium balloons adorn the film’s numerous stump speeches and photo-ops. All that’s missing is a shot of the Hindenburg, which would hardly be out of place in this direly misbegotten picture.
The movie’s press kit maintains that “prophetic” screenwriter Robert King began this project in 1989, more than two years before Mary Matalin and James Carville were shoved in our faces. Yeah, sure. (If by the remotest chance this assertion is true, why the hell didn’t he warn us?) King and Underwood make every effort to steer clear of lawsuits; Geena Davis’ hairstyle is the film’s only direct allusion to its over-publicized prototypes. But—and I realize this will seem as implausible to readers as King’s alleged knack for prognostication—a month in the country with Razorlips and the Lizard would be more agreeable than 98 minutes spent with Speechless‘ squabbling paramours.
These days, romantic comedy, formerly one of Hollywood’s most bewitching genres, has become as moribund as the musical and the western. Not because of an absence of star power: Many of the gifted young performers currently impersonating serial killers and other sociopaths could be effectively teamed to challenge Hepburn and Grant, Loy and Powell, and other golden age duos. What’s lacking are writers and directors with sufficient wit and craft to do the job. The best writers of romantic comedy—Preston Sturges, Samson Raphaelson, Garson Kanin, and Ruth Gordon—came to movies from the Broadway stage, where language was the dominant mode of exposition and expression. Contemporary Hollywood films, with very few exceptions, are indifferent to dialogue because it’s too difficult to dub or subtitle for the international market. Today’s big-time screenwriters, like Shane Black and Joe Eszterhas, make their megabucks by devising crash/screw/slash marathons in which language and character development are, at best, rudimentary. Similarly, today’s bankable directors, trained in television and music videos, are preoccupied with visuals, and lack the mastery of comedic timing, nuance, and structure that distinguishes the movies of theater-trained filmmakers like Lubitsch, Cukor, and Sturges.
A glance at the credits of the people who made Speechless should have been enough to predict the movie’s failure. King’s previous efforts include Blood Fist, Phantom of the Mall, Silk 2, and Clean Slate. Underwood’s directorial career began promisingly with the underrated sci-fi comedy Tremors, then declined into the mawkish City Slickers before bottoming out with the botched Heart and Souls. Clearly, these are not the guys to enlist with the task of fashioning a Hepburn-Tracy comedy for the ’90s.
Too bad, because Davis and Michael Keaton are uniquely qualified to play comic lovers—engaging, attractive, high-spirited, and distinctively quirky. But even they can’t redeem the stale material King has provided. Two insomniacs, they meet cute, jousting for the last box of Nytol in a New Mexico all-night convenience store. We already know (but they don’t) that both are political spin doctors—idealistic Davis for a boneheaded Democrat (Mitchell Ryan), and cynical ex-sitcom scripter Keaton for a smarmy Republican (Ray Baker). They meet cute once again when, moments before a high-school forum on political speechwriting, they learn the truth about each other’s jobs. Professional and ideological rivalries obstruct their mutual attraction until the inevitable resolution in a crushingly banal fade-out clinch.
Stylistically, Speechless reeks of anxiety, the cinematic equivalent of flop sweat. Its continuity is jumbled, sometimes incoherent. What appear to be important characters are painstakingly introduced—Bonnie Bedelia as Keaton’s politico ex-wife; Christopher Reeve, with makeup by Charlton Heston’s mortician, in the Ralph Bellamy role of Davis’ estranged fiancé—and subsequently ignored. (An impressive supporting ensemble, including Ernie Hudson, Charles Martin Smith, Harry Shearer, and Steven Wright, is squandered in what amount to walk-ons.) Similarly, plot lines are laboriously developed—both senatorial candidates have been illicitly financed by the same obscure donor—then left unresolved. The screenplay is so sloppily crafted that we never fully learn the outcome of the election. In a last ditch attempt to give this mess some semblance of coherence, composer Marc Shaiman’s bombastic score saturates every scene like syrup drenching a stack of hotcakes. At times, the sawing strings and trumpeting brass drown out King’s dialogue—admittedly, no great loss, but nevertheless irritating. Elsewhere, language is completely abandoned and old pop tunes—Irving Berlin’s “Count Your Blessings” and, believe it or not, “As Time Goes By”—are pressed into service to express sentiments King is unable to verbalize.
The film’s two major set pieces never catch fire. At the school forum, Keaton and Davis implausibly call each other “scumbag” and “fuck-happy rabbit” in front of an audience of young students. Even worse is the sequence where Davis struggles to haul an inebriated Keaton out of bed and over to his word processor. Movie buffs will instantly spot that this scene has been lifted from Buster Keaton’s Spite Marriage (1929), which was previously duplicated by Red Skelton in I Dood It (1943). But even this sure-fire slapstick routine fizzles here because Underwood is too clumsy to plagiarize competently.
With such intractable material, the stars have no opportunity to shimmer. Keaton’s performance is oddly morose and disengaged, as if he were aware that expending any effort would prove fruitless. The statuesque, vivacious Davis—who co-produced with her action-director husband Renny Harlin—tries harder, working her generous mouth overtime to put some bite into King’s toothless dialogue. But she can’t and, in the process, she reveals here, as she did in Angie, that her expressive range is awfully narrow. Unless she finds scripts and directors to challenge her, she’s going to wind up like Goldie Hawn—an ingenue in aspic.