Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Director Report Card: Ivan Reitman (1993)

9. Dave

Gary Ross has had an interesting career. Ross initially worked as a political aide, involved in campaigns for Ted Kennedy, Michael Dukakis and Bill Clinton. This led to an unlikely second career as a screenwriter, Ross winning acclaim for “Big.” Later, Ross would direct other well-liked films like “Pleasantville” or “Seabiscuit” before taking a shot at blockbuster filmmaking with the first “Hunger Games” movie. Coming after the former film but before the latter ones, Ross wrote “Dave.” Like “Big” (little boy wakes up in a man’s body) or “Pleasantville” (modern teens enter the world of a 1950s sitcom), “Dave” has an easily understood, high concept premise. “What would a normal man do if he suddenly became president?” The reason I’m talking more about Ross than Ivan Reitman, the man who directed “Dave,” is because its Ross’ sensibilities that guides the film, not so much Reitman’s.

President Bill Mitchell’s term as the highest elected office in our country has progressed with little controversy or events of note. His wife is estranged from him and Mitchell is having an affair with his secretary but, other than that, his administration mostly seems directed by Chief of Staff Bob Alexander. Dave Kovac, a normal man who runs a temp agency, has an uncanny resemblance to the President. The Secret Service taps him to be the President’s double during brief public events. During one such event, President Mitchell suffers a stroke during an intimate meeting with his secretary. Alexander talks Dave into impersonating the President full-time. While the Chief of Staff thinks he can manipulate Kovac easily, Dave has other ideas.

If you only heard its premise, “Dave” would probably sound like a cutting edge political satire. The web of politics can often seem impenetrable to the common man. Dropping a normal guy behind the commander-in-chief’s desk would present the often baffling decisions of the government to a mass audience. A film with this premise could maybe even explore the seedier side of politics, the back room decisions and handshakes that make power. “Dave” is not this movie. Those with a knowledge of politics have dismissed the film as nothing more than a fantasy, with a childish grasp of real politics. At the very least, a cover-up of massive proportions would be necessary to make “Dave” work in reality.

Instead, “Dave” is exactly the kind of high-concept flick its premise describes. So, what would a regular man do if he unexpectedly became the President? Dave’s puppet masters veto a bill, cutting 650 million dollars for a charity program, housing homeless children. Discovering this, he calls a meeting with his staff, cutting extraneous programs and expenditure in order to raise the amount. Basically, the film imagines a common man cutting through the complexities of political office to actually help people and solve problems with common sense. I suspect that it would be more difficult then that. Yet “Dave” doesn’t pretend to accurately reflect the presidency. Instead, it’s a very light-weight comedy.

“Dave” came four years after Kevin Kline won an Oscar for “A Fish Called Wanda,” representing the brief period when the actor could open a movie. Kline is very well cast in the part. His distinctive voice projects an intelligence, suggesting the kind of personality you’d hope for from a president. Yet his charm is relatable, making him believable as a common man. Kline is essentially playing three roles: Dave, President Mitchell, and Dave-acting-as-President-Mitchell. He’s good in each, presenting a different body language for every part. Kevin Kline’s charm is such that he easily carries the film. When interacting with a lonely child or making chit-chat with his Secret Service agent, Kline creates a likable, sympathetic character. It doesn’t exactly elevate the thin script but it makes watching the final film tolerable.

“Dave” reunites Ivan Reitman with his “Ghostbusters” leading lady Sigourney Weaver. As the First Lady, Weaver begins with film resenting her husband. A hard-edged, cold ball-buster is something Weaver can do with ease. The part also calls for her icy exterior to melt, revealing a compassionate woman. Weaver is good at this too, as her radiant smile shows. However, I wish Sigourney’s role had a little more to do in the script. After deducing that Dave is not her husband, she's mostly stuck being pretty and knowledgeable.
Another reason “Dave” comes off as simplistic is its almost cartoonish bad guy. Frank Langella plays Bob Alexander, the Chief of Staff who attempts to control Dave. Alexander’s scheme is to discredit the Vice President, slowly push Dave out of the President’s position, and slot himself into the Presidency. Bob is never anything less than scheming and duplicitous. In many scenes, he causally makes the decision to character-assassinate someone or push hundreds out of their homes. When cornering someone with a descending opinion, you half expect Alexander to sick a black ops hit squad on the guy. As a character actor who excels at playing hammy bad guys, Langella is fine in the part. Once again, the actor is only provided so much to work with.

A number of familiar faces appear in the supporting cast. Kevin Dunn, who had a small role in “Ghostbusters II,” plays Communications Director Alan Reed. Though he basically acts as Langella’s sidekick, Reed is a much softer character. Dunn’s smiling face makes him inevitably being charmed by Dave easier to buy. Ving Rhames plays Secret Service Agent Stevensen. Rhames mostly stands around, his arms crossed in an intimidating fashion. Well, that’s something Ving Rhames is very good at. He tries to give the character some personality-lending gestures but there’s only so much he can do. Charles Grodin shows up in a small role as Dave’s accounting friend, brought in to help balance the U.S. budget. Grodin’s typically squirmy energy gets a few laughs. Ben Kingsley plays the Vice President, his considerable talent being called upon for a simple role as an upstanding man. Laura Linney is wasted as the secretary the president is screwing around with. I have no idea why a talented, recognizable actress was cast in such a nothing role.

“Dave’s” greatest strength is its relaxed tone. Kevin Kline can be thanked for a lot of this, as his easy-going charisma directs much of the movie. “Dave” never gets belly laughs. Instead, that laid back atmosphere allows it to satisfies with a handful of chuckles. Weaver confronting Kline in the shower or the double enthusiastically shouting to a crowd create small laughs. Probably the funniest scene occurs when Dave and the First Lady, while out for a drive, are pulled over by some cops. This leads to a surprise rendition of “Tomorrow” from “Annie” and a predictable if amusing aside about Weaver’s appearance. Okay, I take it back. The funniest scene is a cameo from Oliver Stone, wherein the director suggests a conspiracy, that the President has been replaced with a look-a-like. It’s good to know that Stone is self-aware enough to allow that cute gag to pass. (That’s but one of a number of celebrity cameos, such as Larry King, Jay Leno, the McLaughlin Group, and Reitman’s favorite Austrian Arnold Schwarzenegger.)

As a comedy, “Dave” is mildly amusing. As a romance, it amuses to an even milder level. Kline and Weaver have solid chemistry. How he slowly shows his attraction to her, such as a fleeting glimpse at her exposed leg, is cute. The moment she realizes he isn’t her husband is well executed. This leads into a gently touching scene, of the two talking on a hill top about what the president can accomplish. The final scene of “Dave” shows the two leaping into each others’ arms, locking lips. It’s not a moment the film truly earns, as the romance is nowhere near developed enough. However, the connection between the two performers does count for something.

Like some many similarly orchestrated nineties comedies, or even Reitman’s own “Kindergarten Cop,” “Dave” aims for dramatic elements totally outside of its reach. In the second half, Bob Alexander’s evil scheme comes together. The Vice President is framed for crimes he didn’t commit. Dave discovers that the President, the man he’s impersonating, is responsible for the crimes he’s accused of. Considering how silly and thinly sketched the movie was up to this point, it jives badly with the rest of the picture. “Dave” wraps everything up with a neat bow, with Alexander being defeated, the Vice President ushered into office, the real President dead, and Dave allowed to return to his ordinary life. Once again, I suspect it would be more complicated than that.

If “Kindergarten Cop” was maybe the most nineties sounding movie ever made, “Dave” is certainly a clear runner-up to the title. James Newton Howard, an accomplished composer, contributes the score. Howard’s music sounds less like a sitcom soundtrack than Randy Edelman’s score for the previous film. It’s orchestral, lush, and pretty. It’s also simple and forgettable. Like the movie it accompanies, Howard’s score is pleasant in the moment but doesn’t linger in the brain for very long.

Despite being a film of such little ambition, “Dave” received positive reviews, good box office, and even snagged an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. The Oscar nomination can probably be attributed to residual good will toward Gary Ross. As for the box office receipts, I guess there’s something to be said for a mildly amusing time-killer like “Dave.” That “Dave” is such an utter trifle, that it squanders a great deal of potential, is disappointing. Though fine as background noise while cleaning the house, or even as a lazy afternoon watch, “Dave” is ultimately forgettable. [Grade: C+]

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