Imagine the hooker played by Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman asking Richard Gere, her millionaire prince charming, to put some of his megabucks into saving the environment and getting handguns off the street. Actually you don’t have to imagine it — you can see The American President, an exuberant romantic comedy packing an uneasy political agenda. With an election year ahead, director Rob Reiner and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin have decided to spice their bonbon with some liberal drumbeating.
Michael Douglas, looking cannily Clintonesque, plays the widowed President Andrew Shepherd, a pragmatist who hasn’t exactly kept all his promises to the fed-up folks who got him elected. Although the prez enjoys being daddy to 12-year-old Lucy (Shawna Waldron), he is lonely and, frankly, horny. The babe who catches his eye is Sydney Wade (Annette Bening). Sydney is not a hooker, exactly — she’s a lobbyist — but we’re talking semantics here. The prez walks in on a meeting just as Sydney is mocking his environmental leadership and calling him “the chief executive of fantasyland.” She is humiliated; he likes her spirit.
It’s a revamped Cinderella story with power as the aphrodisiac, and Douglas and Bening play it to the classy hilt. The courtship scenes in the film’s lighter, more deft first half have the bounce of a moonstruck fable. Reiner, with invaluable help from production designer Lilly Kilvert and cinematographer John Seale, turns the White House into an enchanted castle. Sydney’s pit-bull defenses melt into prom-queen wonder when the president asks her to dance at a state dinner. Not since Roberts’ pretty woman got to shop on Rodeo Drive with her prince’s charge card have audiences had such a rush of wish fulfillment. Sorkin also gets much comic mileage out of the protocol of dating the leader of the free world. There’s the fuss made by all the president’s men — including Martin Sheen (the chief of staff), David Paymer (a pollster) and Michael J. Fox (a domestic adviser), who does a spin on George Stephanopoulos — and the president’s women, including Anna Deavere Smith (the press secretary) and Samantha Mathis (a personal aide). There is even a villain; not Bob Dole but Bob Rumson (Richard Dreyfuss), the senator who makes a self-serving conservative stink about the prez sneaking the hired gun of an ultraliberal action committee into his bedroom while his daughter sleeps down the hall.
Reiner sparks a large and resourceful cast. This is Bening’s best role in years, and she brings to Sydney a crinkly eyed charm that doesn’t compromise her intelligence. Douglas’ brash humor makes the president most appealing when he is most helpless — ordering flowers, calling for a date, or telling a woman and a nation he was wrong. He also brings conviction to the climactic gun-control speech, meant to show — in Frank Capra fashion — that love can lead a statesman back to his principles. But the speeches belong in another forum. The American President finds more magic and fun when it stays focused on the chief executive of fantasyland.