Film Reviews

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 -- but at least you're involved.

Passively bad movies are ultimately much worse. In passively bad movies, nothing much of anything happens. You sit there in the dark like a pathetic Beckett character, hat in hand, searching the horizon, waiting in vain for entertainment to come along. Meanwhile, the film keeps unreeling, introducing with considerable flourish characters who turn out to be irrelevant and 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 set pieces are staged so ineptly that you're never quite sure what's happening, or why.

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

Speechless is such a passively bad film. Based on a kicky premise that had every right to be developed in an interesting and original way, it's set in a milieu that's inherently fascinating and stocked with talented actors. But while it references many movies in many genres, Speechless never finds its own voice. And the actors, despite their talents, look lost and flustered and vaguely troubled, as if every last one of them can't remember if he or she turned off the iron before leaving the house that morning. That filmmaker Ron Underwood directs with such palpable smugness, italicizing punch lines 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 divorce who started out as a speechwriter ten years ago, then quit 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 joy ride, 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 he still isn't sure how to deal with his hard-bitten 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, bantam 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 set pieces like a woman who never quite got used 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.

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Matt Zoller Seitz