VOICES, LUCKILY, comes nowhere close to realizing its potential. Any movie about an up-and-coming rock singer falling in love with a beautiful deaf dancer has an odds-on chance of turning into a gooey combination of Rocky, Saturday Night Fever and The Helen Keller Story. Voices, somehow, doesn't and we should be grateful.
This is not to say that Voices is a particularly good film. The story line is so jammed with stereotypes and so improbable that you have to grin throughout just so no one will think you're taking it seriously. A lot of the acting is reminiscent of the Mod Squad (cool and vacant) school. Voices is simply not good enough to make it worth sitting through another movie about upward social mobility, human kindness and disco.
Still and all, there are some good things about this movie. One of them is pretty Amy Irving who plays the deaf woman. She falls for Michael Ontkean, a laundry truck driver and strip joint singer. Before she knows it, she has dumped her deaf boyfriend Scott and started spending nights at the Hoboken, N.J. apartment her new boyfriend shares with his extended family of stereotypes--1) hopeless professional gambler father, 2) gang member brother, and 3) kindly, white-haired, tailor grandfather. This crew goes about their stock business as usual (Pa loses $2700 on Sleepwalker in the seventh, brother collects "tolls" for safe passage through the streets of Hoboken, Grandpa takes in pants), leaving Irving to do some dazzling acting on her own.
With Carrie and The Fury in her past, Irving needed to get out of the supernatural world. She took a crash course in dancing and another in deafness to get through this film, and the schooling shows. She doesn't turn her head at sounds, she doesn't look like she's cheating on her lip-reading, she uses sign language like it's her native tongue, she talks in the same eerie high-pitched grunt that deaf people use. In fact, Irving acts handicapped so well that she may have jumped from the super-natural to the Eye, Ear, Nose and Throat clinic. "I've gotten lots of scripts for affliction films since the word got out that I do my homework," Irving says.
MANY DEAF PEOPLE were angered that the directors didn't choose a deaf actress for the part--some in California picketed the show's opening. But Irving plays the part the way it should be played. It's hard to imagine anyone doing a better job of making the audience realize that deaf people do everything, except hear, about as well as the rest of the race. "Handicapped people are usually depicted as virginal, innocent," Irving says. "We decided to make Rosemarie an aware woman, a sexual woman."
The movie also manages to show some interesting things about the world of the deaf. From the teletype phone ("I never knew there was such a thing--now I've got one so I can talk to my deaf friends," says Irving) to the ingenious doorbell that turns lights on and off, Voices is a lot like a National Geographic special on the world of the deaf. Find out how deaf people talk, what their schools are like, and most importantly, some of the frustrations that come from not being able to hear. Rosemarie tries out for a dance company in a scene that is realistically scary.
The message of Voices, though, is muffled because every last thing comes out all right in the end. If there isn't going to be a certain amount of real tragedy in the love relationship, then just for realism's sake you'd expect a little in the bothered family. Instead, the younger brother gets out of gangs and into civility, and the father, who the day before burned down his tailor shop for the insurance money so he could pay off his bookie, somehow turns up for the disco's opening night where he beams at his son who somehow (not through musical ability, that's for sure) has escaped the strip joint circuit and is opening at a plush midtown disco.
So there it is. Voices is an adequate and even interesting movie, but not a great one--about what you'd expect from something filmed on location in Hoboken. It could have been a lot worse (one love scene in a purplish rainstorm demonstrated a potential for sappy disaster), and a writer without a Horatio Alger complex could have made the movie better. "We walked in a fine line" between fairy tale and fact, remarks Irving. As Karl Wallenda would say, if he could, that can be dangerous.