Ron Underwood, USA,1994)


The search for a modern romantic comedy continues with Speechless. Snappily directed by Ron Underwood (Heart and Souls, 1993), Speechless has a smart premise. As two political candidates battle for a Senate seat in New Mexico, their respective speech writers, played by Geena Davis and Michael Keaton, spend sleepless nights producing copy. They bump into each other at an all-night convenience store, and the sparks of attraction soon fly.


Most romantic comedies tend to move around the same basic elements. Like Only You (Norman Jewison, 1994), Speechless is about a brief idyllic affair complicated by a misunderstanding. As usual, there is a third party in the wings Geena's handsome but gormless fiancé played by Superman Christopher Reeve. What makes Speechless superior to run-of-the-mill romantic comedies like Only You is its refreshing earthiness. This story of 'tough professionals in love' is fast, sarcastic and doesn't shy away from the sexual element of romance.


Robert King's script is cleverly wound around the motif of speech and the seeming impossibility of open, authentic talk between these ill-crossed lovers. Speechlessness effects the characters in several ways, whether as a practical problem (trying to whisper secretly in a crowded room) or an emotional block. Like many a leading man, Kevin goes to water whenever he tries to say the words "I love you". You wonder all the way through whether he'll find a special way to say it, as Woody Allen sometimes does in his films, or whether he'll end up singing it as Frederic Forrest did in Coppola's One From the Heart (1982).


Underwood gives proceedings a mildly screwball air. Rapid intercutting compares Kevin and Julia at every point as they strive to outdo each other on the campaign trail. Around them spins a small army of organisers, reporters and hangers-on, who provide an incessant chorus of catty one-liners. There are many delightful gags about the circus of modern politics, with its media manipulation of issues and personalities.


However, once politics gets into the picture, the film starts unravelling. Speechless is one of those peculiarly modern movies, like Broadcast News (James L. Brooks, 1987), which lightly decries the reduction of politics to mere 'image'. Yet its own story, its own way of showing and passing judgment on people, never gets above a surface level of image, style and personality. Witty types like Keaton and Davis are kings; dweebs like Christopher Reeve deserve the flick. Naturally, with this kind of love story going, the film has no real interest in politics or ideology, what people believe in or campaign for. Plot details concerning pervasive corruption in the political system, even the announcement that the Geena Davis character herself plans one day to run for office all these are just throwaway lines, background business necessary to keep the romantic intrigue bubbling.


Even considered as a straight love story without greater aims or pretensions, Speechless leaves me with a certain, niggling doubt. It is often lamented that Hollywood seems unable to make romantic comedies like it used to. This not entirely a case of that blinkered, nostalgic purism I mentioned before in relation to horror movies. Of course, times have changed, manners and relationships have changed, and so of course romantic comedies have changed too since the great days of the '30s and '40s. But one aspect of modern romances seems not just telling but regrettable, maybe even downright wrong. And that's the way many current films make their male and female leads extremely mismatched, which is absolutely not the way it was between Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940), or Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, 1941).


A certain reciprocity, a certain fighting equality between man and woman, was an absolute condition of the best old romantic comedies which is quite a miracle when you consider the time and the society they were made in. Today, society is more enlightened, but our romantic comedies are less balanced, and Speechless is a sad illustration of this tendency. Michael Keaton gets almost all the best lines, the brightest moves and the funniest shots in this movie. He gets to clown, mug, mime, he performs double and triple takes on his own jokes. He does it well, too Keaton is always a delight to watch.


But Geena Davis, by and large, just gets to react to her zany, lovable guy. She is also cast according to an old comic formula as the 'immovable object' set against Keaton's 'irresistible force'. This compounds the imbalance, because in such a scenario the woman often seems the stickler, the moralist, the one who has all the qualms; while the guy has all the dreams, drives and passionate impulses. It doesn't all go this way in Speechless. Davis gets to be madcap in the manner she does so well on screen. And there are certainly moments of assertiveness, when crucial moments of self-determination are grafted on to her role. But the value of these moments, finally, is pretty token. It is astonishing that this project, nurtured by Davis herself as co-producer, should give her so little to work with. It's not a nasty, misogynist film; it just doesn't go as far with the equality, the reciprocity between men and women as you hope and pray it will.


MORE Underwood: Mighty Joe Young

© Adrian Martin February 1995

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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