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THE LOVE VOTE

Robert King, it says right here, in 1989 began to write a screenplay about love at first sight between political junkies from opposite camps. Hurrah for him. Without the unlikely, unseemly romance of Clinton spin doctor James Carville and his opposite number from the '92 Bush staff, Mary Matalin, however, King's script would probably be gathering dust on the same high shelf as George McGovern's campaign buttons and Thomas Dewey's inauguration address.

But Ron Underwood's Speechless owes its existence to more than a real-life case of sleeping with the enemy. It's also steeped in Hollywood's--and America's--sour new attitude toward electoral politics and the news media. The two candidates in the movie's fictional U.S. Senate race in New Mexico are both unprincipled jerks, and the reporters chasing every escalation of the hostilities are leeches or preeners. Only Love Is Real, this on-again, off-again comedy tells us, for the umpteenth time: Love's the only platform worth building.

All right, and while we're at it, how could it hurt to insert a couple of big stars like Geena Davis and Michael Keaton into the fray? She's Julia Mann, idealistic speechwriter for the Democrat, Wannamaker (Mitchell Ryan); he's Kevin Vallick, a TV sitcom writer moonlighting for the Republican, Garvin (Ray Baker). Both insomniacs, they meet at 3 a.m. over the hotel gift shop's last box of No Doz, and the chase is on.

For much of the way, King and director Underwood (Tremors, City Slickers) proceed under the delusion shared by so many current moviemakers--that you can achieve polished, witty screwball comedy in the Preston Sturges mold simply by updating the dialogue and situations a little and letting the cases of mistaken identity and pivotal misunderstanding fall where they may. Good luck.

Still, Speechless has its moments. In the beginning, when they get the desert stars in their eyes, Julia and Kevin don't know each other's function in the world. Later, when the candidates are out of the bag, they sabotage and steal from one another, then secretly take turns saving the other's job and, of course, topping the ticket together in the end. Davis is sweet and smart here, and Keaton does his wiseguy number to a fare-thee-well: I love it when he meddles with the opposing candidate's TelePrompTer text and the poor blustering dope winds up reading gibberish to a theaterful of voters.

In keeping with the film's jaundiced view, there are lots of dirty tricks (and lots of jokes result), but no one will mistake the principals here for, say, Tracy and Hepburn. In the sublime comedies Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon wrote for that matchless pair, there was a gloss and a style to their lovable bickering that movies like Speechless cannot equal: In the end Davis and Keaton sound more like stand-up comics doing bits than full-blooded characters rooted in a certain convincing atmosphere.

The movie's frantic campaign handlers (Bonnie Bedelia, Charles Martin Smith, Ernie Hudson, etc.) can be amusing, but Christopher Reeve provides the most successful screwball update here. As "Baghdad Bob" Freed, a famously egotistical TV reporter just back from the front lines with shrapnel tears in his flak jacket, Reeve now and then gives Speechless the right goofy tilt. Bob's empty-headed, and he's vain, but we like him anyway--even as he tries to rekindle his old romance with Julia. When he lies on a pool table draining martini glasses, we understand the burden of his life and career--it wouldn't slow a sparrow down. Arthur Kent, eat your heart out.

With its spirited parrying and its sticky center, this lightweight comedy won't knock you over, but it might lift your spirits. As Carville and Matalin and Newt Gingrich's sister can tell you, politics is still making strange bedfellows--and no one's more surprised than they.

 
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