DAVE (1993) *** 1/4
"Dave," a populist delight, will certainly be the first of the summer blockbusters. This distinction does not apply to a special-effects spectacular, to a film that panders to basic reactions or base instincts, or to a brainless wonder, but to a very good, cannily executed comedy-fantasy.
I am not saying that "Dave" is a great film in the absolute sense of a ground-breaking classic-to-be. But it is great as a "hoi polloi" audience movie. In addition it appeals to the tastes of finicky viewers and reviewers.
The basic concept is sure-fire, as, in these times so conscious of politics, it addresses our yearnings for clean government. But the concept alone would not carry the film were "Dave" not so deftly made in just about every way, consistently entertaining, funny, sweetly sentimental, yet not maudlin.
To a great extent "Dave" is a throwback to certain Frank Capra movies. Specifically, much of it plays like an updated variant of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." But it also goes well beyond Capra.
The film, in a much less farcical way, is also a kissin' cousin of the Paul Mazursky comedy of 1988, "Moon Over Parador." It has some elements of the recent "The Player," with Hollywood studio politics and scheming transposed to Washington doings. It harks back to several nice oldies, chiefly "The Prisoner of Zenda," in which a dead-ringer tourist substitutes for a dissolute Ruritanian King, saves the country and wins over the future Queen. It has echoes of "If I Were King," "Here Comes Mr. Jordan" and many other fantasies.
In "Dave" there is an imperial U.S. President called Bill Mitchell (Kline). He is a crude, self-serving, unscrupulous politician, unfaithful both to the integrity of his office and to his estranged wife Ellen (Weaver). And there's commoner Dave Kovic (Kline), a big-hearted man who runs a temporary employment office and occasionally does impersonations of Mitchell, whose identical look-alike he is.
Spotted by Secret Service agents, Dave is brought to Washington by an appeal to his patriotism, and given a one-night social stand as Mitchell, at a reception. The real reason is to free the President for a horizontal night with one of his secretaries.
While Dave is having a helluva good time, Mitchell suffers an irreversible stroke in the arms of his pattootie. The powerful, diabolically ambitious, corrupt and cynical Chief of Staff Bob Alexander (Alexander as in Haig, Bob as in you-take-your-choice), played by Frank Langella, is in cahoots with the somewhat less inhuman Communications Director Alan Reed (Dunn).
Seeing his chance at seizing the reins of government, Alexander arranges to keep away the decent Vice-President (Ben Kingsley), announces that the President is merely indisposed, stashes him (now a vegetable) in a secret recess of the White House. He puts Dave in the Oval Office by convincing him that the masquerade is for the good of the country.
>From start to finish the basic plot is entirely predictable. You see it coming that the good clone will first be taken in, then see the light, rise to the occasion and Do The Right Things for the Nation and the People; that he will appeal to the ill-married First Lady; that the Good Guys and Gals will bring out lumps in the audience's throats.
Plot predictability, however, is no problem here. In fact, there's something pleasant, comfortable and comforting about it. Even when a twist is added (and there are many, as this movie is more complicated than others in that genre) you can guess how that twist will proceed. But what really matters is the unpredictability and inventiveness of the details, the fine points, the irresistible comic bits, the wit, the excellent performances and the dialogue.
Also unpredictable is the amusing seriousness with which real people are worked into the story : several Washington politicians (Paul Simon and Howard Metzenbaum among them) and media celebrities (including Oliver Stone on the Larry King show and Jay Leno on his). It's ingenious, especially as public figures are so used to pretending that they are perfectly at home in walk-on movie parts.
Occasionally the film spells out some things needlessly. Now and then some faster and tighter editing is in order. But overall, the humor is vivid, the silliness is creative, the throwaway morsels are appealing. Dave, calling his office to pretend he's going away with a new lady-love, explains "She's American-Polynesian. You know ... Amnesian."
Most of "Dave" artfully avoids extremes: pathos, preaching and solemnity on the one hand; insouciance, derision or farce on the other. It has "le ton juste," the right dosage of eagerness and smiles.
In perfect harmony with the movie's tone, Kevin Kline's performance is flawless, balancing some of his sensitivity from "Grand Canyon" with some of his outrageousness from "Soapdish."
The rest of the cast as well contributes good, controlled acting, notably Sigourney Weaver in a potentially icky part, and Frank Langella, who reins in his monstrosity.
Charles Grodin -- one of my favorites -- gets a mile out of a role of mere inches, playing Dave's humble accountant friend who finds out how to cut millions from the budget.
Grodin's sleight-of-hand, Honest Dave's accomplishments, his total resemblance to the President, and just about everything else, require total suspension of disbelief -- and get it right away from the audience. After all, as Hitchcock said, "This is only a movie." In fact, it is a movie-movie, and as such it works beautifully.
The illusion is powerfully reinforced by the sets of the White House interiors and exteriors, built in California, and so good that only Washington insiders can spot the modifications.
Many Champaign-Urbana denizens who saw recently the shooting of a scene for the movie "With Honors" on the University of Illinois campus, must be conscious of the wealth of means needed to disguise a mere corner of the Quad into Harvard Yard.
By comparison, their minds ought to boggle when they imagine the cost, resources and techniques that in "Dave" go into days of faking Washington so well and so seamlessly.