Ron Underwood’s career has been on a definite downward slide since the delights of 1989’s Tremors. Most recently there was the abysmal Pluto Nash, but inbetween times a move towards softer, simpler and more sentimental pictures has been in effect, from City Slickers to The Cowboy Way to Speechless. As such this 1995 offering is a fairly toothless affair, using as it does the formulas of 1930s and 40s screwball comedies without actually updating them beyond the modern setting and the inclusion of a single f-word - presumably to show that it has “edge”.
And edge is exactly what is required as Speechless is set in the world of spin and political speech writers on the campaign trail (hence the appalling punning of the title). Beyond the smug air of self-congratulation that comes when writers use supposedly great wordsmiths as their subjects, however, most audiences wouldn’t know it. The focus here is rather on the romantic entanglements of rival speech writers Geena Davis and Michael Keaton, and the various offs and ons they experience to satisfy the hour and a half running time. Political corruption does garner a brief mention, though it’s hardly surprising to learn that this is merely a plot contrivance to bring out pair together one final time.
From a standpoint of almost ten years later, this lack of bite is especially disappointing. At the same time in the mid-nineties another classic Hollywood genre, the film noir, was being revisited by the likes of Carl Franklin (One False Move, Devil in a Blue Dress) to fascinating ends, yet the newer screwball comedies (see also I Love Trouble, It Could Happen to You, Only You, etc.) never progressed beyond merely regurgitating the plot circumstances - opposites attract, mistaken identities and other misunderstandings et al. Speechless in particular, given its subject matter, could have easily played upon audience expectations, yet seems perfectly happy to do nothing more than make these conventions become utter inevitabilities.
Part of the reason may be down to Geena Davis’ secondary role as producer (alongside then-husband Renny Harlin). Perhaps keen to allow herself a starring vehicle that played on the kookiness that had contributed to her Best Supporting Actress Oscar win for The Accidental Tourist, it is likely that she didn’t wish for anything to distract attention from herself. In this respect, Speechless does offer Davis with a decent enough part; she has always had a look that would seem suited to screwball shenanigans in much the same way as Carole Lombard once did. There has also been the smart decision of pairing herself with Michael Keaton. Not quite a strong enough presence to muscle his co-star off-screen, Keaton does possess an offbeat charm that works well in this kind of role - as exemplified by his performance in Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice, which of course had previously seen him sharing the screen with Davis. Likewise, a supporting cast of familiar faces (Harry Shearer, Christopher Reeve, Charles Martin Smith) is solid enough to keep the attention without distracting too much attention. That said, it is these performers and the gifts of the two leads which prove to be Speechless’ only saving graces.
In what appears to have been a direct NTSC to PAL transfer (and therefore an extremely lazy move by MGM UK), Speechless - as well as its menu and theatrical trailer - looks hideous on disc. Everything has a smudged appearance and emits what looks like a strange glow, whilst the darker areas of the screen offer little that is discernible. This level of image quality might be expected from a US TV show from the early nineties, but certainly not a US film from the same period. The sound fares better with various dubs alongside an English DD5.1 mix. Understandably the rear channels are rarely used for a film largely driven by dialogue, but there are no technical difficulties to speak of. The only extra is the aforementioned trailer, its presence merely padding.