Mixing comedy and corn with surprising savvy, Dave is the first political fable of the Clinton era. It’s a winner. The plot is the same bumpkin-bucks-the-system formula that director Frank Capra raised to an art form in 1939 with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Jimmy Stewart starred as an idealistic senator up against political sharks. With the country on the verge of war, Mr. Smith was denounced in the Senate for “belittling the American system of government.” In the post-Watergate era, everyone kicks the feds’ ass.
Some may think Dave, about a naive presidential look-alike who gets to play chief, doesn’t kick hard enough. This entertaining spoof would rather tweak than claw. But director Ivan Reitman is a long way from his last film, Kindergarten Cop. This time lightweight isn’t synonymous with empty-headed. Dave is a prankish sparkler that lets screenwriter Gary Ross (Big) — a former Capitol Hill intern who was a convention delegate for Ted Kennedy in 1980 and a speechwriter for Michael Dukakis in 1988 — get in his licks.
Bill Mitchell, played by Kevin Kline, is president No. 44 (Clinton is No. 42). He alienates his activist wife, Ellen (Sigourney Weaver), by screwing the little guy, not to mention patriotic bimbos, including his secretary, Randi (Laura Linney). This President Bill is a lying, cheating, bribe taking browbeater who tells his staffers to find a way he can veto a bill to help the homeless without looking like a prick. “I want you to look like pricks,” he barks.
Dave Kovic, also played by Kline, bears only a skin-deep resemblance to the prez. (The Jekyll-and-Hyde characters add up to the juiciest role of Kline’s career.) Dave’s a soft touch who runs a temp agency in Baltimore, often palming off his hapless temps on his pals, such as Murray the accountant (scene stealer Charles Grodin). For quick cash, the divorced Dave takes on tacky gigs as a Bill Mitchell look-alike. Secret Service agent Duane Stevensen (the superb Ving Rhames) takes notice and presses Dave to double for the president after a speech.
White House chief of staff Bob Alexander (Frank Langella) and communications director Alan Reed (Kevin Dunn) tell Dave it’s a security measure. But while Dave plays decoy, Bill plays stud. Banging away at Randi, the prez suffers an incapacitating stroke. That’s when Dave becomes a pawn in a much larger game. Alexander, whom Langella makes oh-so-hissable, hatches an evil plan: Put Dave the yutz in as president; stash Bill the vegetable in the White House basement; implicate Vice-President Nance (Ben Kingsley, wryly convincing as a good-hearted stooge) in an S&L scandal. Then when Nance resigns, Alexander can take over as VP and pull the plug on Bill, Dave can take a hike, and the world can hail Alexander as the new chief.
Reitman’s job, which he pulls off deftly, is to get the audience in the right mood for a massive suspension of disbelief. Though the films of this Czech-born Canadian are mostly hits (both Ghostbusters), they range from inventive (Twins) to inept (Legal Eagles). Dave shows Reitman at his most fluid and wittily assured, and he elicits terrific performances.
Kline is a comic marvel. He’s a nimble actor who can think on his feet; everything sparks him. Playing a president limits his chances to go hog wild as he did in A Fish Called Wanda. But Kline puts a likably human face on a fanciful conceit. His sly shadings are priceless as Dave’s aping of Mitchell grows into awe at the power of his office. J. Michael Riva’s meticulous production design — the White House recreation is uncanny — allows Kline to build from an authentic base.
Dave’s trial by fire is the first lady. Weaver is in rare form, her tart wit blazing. “Why can’t you die from a stroke like everybody else?” she asks the man she thinks is her pig husband. Though she and the president don’t share a bedroom, Ellen is suspicious when Mr. Ice starts petting dogs and hugging children.
Reitman peppers the film with celebrity reactions to the change. Tip O’Neill weighs in, as do Senators Paul Simon, Christopher Dodd, Howard Metzenbaum, Alan Simpson and Tom Harkin. Jay Leno and Arnold Schwarzenegger make jokes. Only JFK director Oliver Stone, showing self-deprecating humor, sniffs a conspiracy. This time he’s right.
Dave decides to sabotage Alexander. He sneaks Murray into the White House to help him divert $650 million from defense to the homeless. The sight of Grodin’s small-time CPA indignantly studying the nation’s budget (“Who does these books?”) is one for the comedy time capsule. When Ellen gets wise, instead of turning Dave in, she joins him in beating the bad guys and bettering the world.
Sure it’s naive. But the fantasy worked for Capra, and it works for Reitman. There’s something irresistible about the myth of the little guy taking on the big bad political machine. When the hardened, seen-it-all Duane tells Dave he’d be proud to take a bullet for him, we’re meant to get choked up. The movie is selling the myth that the little guy can make a difference. So is Clinton. Reality may give the lie to such sweet blindness. But for two blissful hours, Dave makes for a soul-satisfying game of let’s pretend.