When asked whether Speechless, which is about a couple of competing political speechwriters who fall in love, was inspired by the well-promoted real-life romance between Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign chief James Carville and George Bush’s go-getter strategist Mary Matalin, husband-and-wife producers Renny Harlin and Geena Davis swear it wasn’t: They had the idea long before Carville and Matalin did.
Turns out that’s not all that separates this thin, directionless, cautiously middle-of-the-road comedy from reality. There’s also passionate debate, wicked wit, desperate improvisation, caffeine-fueled energy, demented commitment to the cause, and unrelieved lack of sleep — all the colorfully unglamorous elements of campaign life that make the setting such a natural for the kind of grown-up, sexy, sparring he-and-she-both-have-brains movies that Hollywood has claimed to want to re-create ever since Hepburn and Tracy snapped at each other as husband-and-wife opposing counsel in Adam’s Rib.
In this toothless production of a script by Robert King (whose previous credit is the gummy Dana Carvey comedy Clean Slate) directed by Ron Underwood (City Slickers, Heart and Souls), Michael Keaton and Davis play Kevin and Julia. He’s a hack sitcom writer hired by his ex-wife the press secretary (Bonnie Bedelia, in a small, uninflected role) to kick life into a New Mexico senatorial run; she’s a 10-year veteran of sound-bite wars intermittently engaged to a high-profile, globe-trotting network correspondent in the Arthur Kent mode (Christopher Reeve). The two meet cute over a bottle of sleeping pills at an all-night pharmacy, and end up saying studiously wacky, falling-in-love things like ”Breakfast? The most important meal of the day!”
Hello, TelePrompTer? Let’s ignore for a moment that a woman as ditsy and as unfocused as Julia would never have survived six weeks on a campaign, let alone a decade of party infighting. Let’s not worry that no political opinions of any stripe were harmed in this movie — that, indeed, Kevin and Julia could be competing manufacturers of chewing gum. Let’s worry, though, that even romance has no firm platform in Speechless. At the story’s end, you still have no idea what each sees in the other. Or, more specifically, what he sees in her; I can fully understand what she sees in him, since Keaton is the best thing in this movie-likable and natural, with a sharp sense of comic timing and an energy that makes you look forward to each scene he’s in. Julia is an amalgam of smiles, script lines, and disjointed Annie Hall-ish gestures. It’s as if Davis doesn’t know what to believe in, or whom to vote for — or why it matters that she gets a good night’s sleep and clears her head for the sexual and political battles ahead. C+