Friday, April 22, 2016

Elvis & Nixon: Double Trouble

Elvis & Nixon (2016) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for occasional profanity

By Derrick Bang

Kevin Spacey’s marvelous impersonation of Richard Nixon, by itself, is worth the price of admission.

That said, everything about director Liza Johnson’s cheeky little comedy is thoroughly delightful.

To their mutual surprise, Elvis Presley (Michael Shannon, left) and President Richard M.
Nixon (Kevin Spacey) discover that they have a lot in common ... including a fondness for
Dr. Pepper.
It’s also based on an actual incident that deserves prominent placement in the Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction file: an event that scripters Joel Sagal, Hanala Sagal and Cary Elwes have built into a droll ensemble piece that also would work as an amusing stage play, particularly if staffed as well as Johnson and casting directors Kerry Barden and Paul Schnee have done here.

Johnson’s film expands upon the unlikely White House encounter between Elvis Presley and President Nixon, which took place shortly after noon on Dec. 21, 1970. Presley orchestrated the meeting, mostly because he wanted to augment his collection of official police badges with one from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.

Nixon, in turn, was encouraged to approve this unexpected guest as a means of enhancing his “one of the people” cred, and for the killer photo op. The latter scheme backfired somewhat, when Presley requested that the meeting be kept secret ... which it was, but only for about a year, at which point columnist Jack Anderson published what he had learned.

Which, as it happens, wasn’t as much as one might think. Elvis’ visit took place before Nixon had the Oval Office wired for continuous taping, and our only record of their actual conversation is based on notes taken by Nixon aide Egil “Bud” Krogh.

Which conveniently gives this film’s scripters plenty of room for, ah, embellishment. And they’ve done this with deliciously understated subtlety, matched by Johnson’s equally delicate touch with her cast.

The story begins a few days earlier, as a bored Presley (Michael Shannon), dismayed by the images of civil unrest emanating from the multiple TV sets in his Graceland lounge, impulsively decides that he can do something about this. He flies to Los Angeles to collect longtime friend and handler Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer), who has left Presley’s employ in an effort to carve out his own career.

This is the first of the film’s strong character dynamics. Presley clearly misses Schilling, in great part because Jerry is one of the few people who likes Elvis for what he is, rather than the superficial wealth and celebrity. Despite that, Presley clumsily tries to “buy” Schilling’s return with offers of expensive gifts: a wistfully ironic touch that Shannon delivers with an endearing, gruff awkwardness.

Pettyfer, in turn, makes Schilling absolutely sincere, compassionate and nonjudgmental: the best sort of true-blue friend one could hope for.

He also senses that Presley is experiencing something of a crisis, and so agrees to one last rodeo together. The two then take a red-eye to D.C., with Presley scribbling a letter to Nixon, requesting a brief audience. Once on the ground, Presley and Schilling take a limo to the White House entrance gate, where the letter is delivered to a guard (Marcus Lyle Brown, making the most of this Are You For Real? moment).

A smiling Presley says that he’ll “wait to hear” from the President. He and Schilling check into a nearby Washington Hotel, having reserved an entire floor for privacy; they’re joined by another good buddy and sorta/kinda bodyguard, Sonny West (Johnny Knoxville).

In the White House, meanwhile, the letter has worked its way up the chain of command, ultimately landing in the hands of Krogh (Colin Hanks) and Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters). Both realize that this unexpected opportunity offers the potential for great PR...

...but Nixon isn’t interested in wasting his time with some flamboyant entertainer.

Which is when Johnson’s take on this saga really gets fun. And funny.

We know the meeting has to happen, but the journey proves just as entertaining as the destination, thanks to the wily machinations of Presley, Schilling, Krogh and Chapin. We’ll likely never know to what degree Nixon had to be persuaded, but Sagal, Sagal and Elwes certainly have a great time with their coulda-been scenario.

Spacey is simply hilarious, his dead-on impersonation of Nixon based mostly on body language and the late president’s oh-so-memorable manner of speaking: that grumpy, oily, condescending sorta-drawl forever immortalized — and eternally lampooned — as a result of those five infamous words, “I am not a crook.” Spacey also projects a spot-on layer of fussy imperialism (no doubt honed during so many seasons as the calculating Francis Underwood, on TV’s House of Cards).

Every line from Spacey is a gem; the script doesn’t waste a single word. Frankly, the performance is both uproarious and disturbing; it’s scary to consider that such contemptuous misanthropy might accurately represent Nixon’s behind-the-scenes behavior in the White House.

Shannon is equally fine as Elvis, both in regal bearing and aw-shucks manner. The actor straddles both extremes: On the one hand, Elvis clearly delights in the fawning attention of the young women — secretaries, travel agents, whoever — gobsmacked by his unexpected appearances at their desks and counters. At the same time, Shannon’s eyes reflect regret and even pain over the “life in a fishbowl” drawbacks.

We feel sorry for the guy, even as our eyes roll over the fanciful tale he spins: his indignation over (for example) The Beatles being a force for anti-American sentiment, and the degree to which drugs are fueling “hippie social agitation.” And again, we wonder: Did Presley really believe such things ... or was it all merely a ruse to get the desired federal badge?

Not that it matters, because this story’s Nixon buys into it: hook, line and sinker. Watching these two men bond over a shared contempt of counter-culture is too delicious for words.

Hanks is a hoot as the pluperfect, starched-collar protocol wonk, the humor coming from Krogh’s efforts to temper his enthusiasm for meeting “The King” with White House-mandated decorum. Hanks also is blessed with his father’s goofy flusteration and comic timing; he gets the script’s funniest running one-liner (although it’s not something that can be reprinted in this family-friendly venue).

Peters is equally amusing as the similarly buttoned-down Chapin, particularly as he and Schilling try to establish the “etiquette details” that Nixon and Presley should observe with each other.

Knoxville, drawing on his Jackass persona, makes West something of a smarmy rock ’n’ roll roadie, cheerfully eager to exploit his proximity to Presley for maximum female companionship.

It’s equally important to acknowledge Johnson’s fine work with the many supporting players; even those with one brief scene, or a minor bit of dialog, are just right in their respective roles. Mara LePere-Schloop’s production design delivers similar authenticity, and Ed Shearmur’s whimsical score properly punctuates the action.

Johnson didn’t make too much noise with her previous features — 2011’s Return and 2013’s Hateship Loveship — but this one could increase her Hollywood rep.

And deservedly so.

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