Speechless

1994, Movie, PG-13, 98 mins

Review

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DUMBFOUNDED would be an equally appropriate title for this witless two-star vanity production that purports to be an up-to-the-minute political comedy. On the campaign trail, two speechwriters for opposing senatorial candidates, Julia (Geena Davis), a committed liberal, and Kevin (Michael Keaton), a wise-ass conservative, go head-to-head in front of the news cameras as well as in the intimacy of their hotel rooms.

They meet cute one night in a convenience store, where they're both searching for an insomnia remedy. Instant animosity eventually turns into symbiosis; they're both torn between political rivalry and personal affection. The setting for their combative trysts is New Mexico, where their candidates must vie for TV coverage with an adorable bear cub which has fallen down a well; the Republican candidate merits some publicity with his lame proposal for a barrier on the Mexican border, derisively known as the "Friendship Ditch." Lurking on the sidelines is Annette (Bonnie Bedelia), a ruthless campaigner accustomed to bossing Kevin around, and "Baghdad Bob" Freed (Christopher Reeve), Julia's brain-dead, narcissistic TV journalist of a fiance. They, along with the air-headed politicos, are the prime comic butts who stand in the way of Julia and Kevin eventually getting together. When Kevin literally falls asleep on the job while writing a last-minute speech for his candidate, Julia saves his behind with an emergency rewrite; this action inextricably binds them across party lines.

Utterly devoid of subtlety and grace, SPEECHLESS is a desperate, thrown-together hodgepodge that tries to glide by on the supposedly surefire chemistry of the pairing of Davis and Keaton. The satiric possibilities afforded by the real-life match of campaign strategists James Carville and Mary Matalin during the 1992 Clinton-Bush wars are here reduced to half-witted antics. Robert King's screenplay loots classic screwball comedies to no avail: the shared insomnia device was old when Ernst Lubitsch used it in his 1938 BLUEBEARD'S EIGHTH WIFE. There's a bitchy schoolroom exchange between the stars that seems ripped off from the old "Jane, you ignorant slut" news routines with which Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin used to convulse "Saturday Night Live" audiences twenty years earlier. The film stops dead in its already flagging tracks for a scene in which Julia tries to revive Kevin, who's asleep at last, so that he can complete the speech his boss is waiting for. The hugely unfunny climax turns on the lyrics to the song "I've Been Working on the Railroad" being mischievously thrown up on the hapless Democrat's TelePrompTer by an impish Kevin. The production's cheesiness is on par with the script's: dingy photography and tacky sets, with a typically bland, straining-to-be-hip pop score by the reliably schlocky Mark Shaiman. At one point, cinematographer Don Peterman cluelessly shoots close-ups of the stars' mouths: the tiny lines around their lips resemble highways on a huge road map.

The lanky Davis, who produced the film with husband Renny Harlin, must bear major blame. A woman of reputedly uncommon intelligence, she has proved her genially goofy comic talent in THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST and the lighter moments of THELMA AND LOUISE. Neither of these gifts is apparent in SPEECHLESS; if this is an example of what a bankable actress chooses to do, one shudders to imagine the projects she turns down. The funniest thing about her is her wardrobe, which is Valley Girl-trendy, composed of juvenile jumpers and suspender motifs, which make it impossible to take her supposedly cerebral character seriously. (They're the kind of costumes that come back to haunt a performer.) Keaton trots out his expected persona of quirky, in-your-face jocularity: all smart-ass one-upmanship, stout anti-intellectualism, identifiable horniness, and furtive side-long glances that play directly, transparently to the audience. Reeve recycles his square Ralph Bellamy impersonation from SWITCHING CHANNELS; Bedelia glimmers fitfully in a sexy, sassy way, but her part is drastically underwritten. (Adult situations, sexual situations, substance abuse, profanity.) leave a comment

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