"Dave" (citywide) is the best kind of comedy, one whose jokes can't be given away. Though replete with amusing situations and clever lines, its strongest suit is the delicately pitched comic performances of its actors, most especially star Kevin Kline.
As "Soapdish," "A Fish Called Wanda" (for which he won an Oscar) and his celebrated stage performance in "The Pirates of Penzance" demonstrated, Kline has a magnificent talent for farce. No one can slip out of a chair or take a fall quite like he does, and his way with both the simplest facial expressions and the broadest physical gestures is unendingly funny. So to allow him, as "Dave" does, to fool around with two characters in the same film can't help but be pleasing.
It is the premise of this light-on-its-feet political satire (written by Gary Ross and directed by Ivan Reitman) that William Harrison Mitchell, the humorless President of the United States, has a double. That would be Dave Kovic, the hang-loose owner of a temporary employment agency who wears funny ties and isn't averse to riding a pig if the situation demands it.
Though President Mitchell is a ruthless policy wonk whose political philosophy seems to be "when I kill something, it always dies," he does have a weakness for philandering after hours. Which is why Secret Service agent Duane Stevensen (Ving Rhames) is always on the lookout for an executive look-alike, someone who can stand in for the President when he feels like slipping away.
Dave is naturally recruited, but events transpire to turn what everyone thinks will be a one-night stand into a longer engagement. "We want you to extend things a little," is how Bob Alexander, the President's icy chief of staff (Frank Langella), carefully puts it, and so the most ordinary of guys gets to see what it's like to be the major-domo of the free world.
While its look-alikes in politics premise echoes everything from "The Prisoner of Zenda" to "The Prince and the Pauper," "Dave's" theme of an innocent confronting and mastering experience has more than a little in common with the Oscar-nominated screenplay for "Big," which Ross co-wrote with Ann Spielberg.
And while director Reitman ("Ghostbusters," "Kindergarten Cop," "Twins") has not been known as the most subtle of filmmakers, the combination of his sure commercial sensibility and Ross' fastidious writing has resulted in a smoothly professional comedy that has an appealing air of low-key ridiculousness about it. Especially well-done are the scenes of Kline as Dave trying to get used to the perks of the White House, wondering nervously if, for instance, he needs to dial 9 before making an outside call.
And since Ross is something of a political junkie, the film was not only able to get august Washington figures from Sen. Alan Simpson to the perpetrators of PBS' "McLaughlin Group" to appear, it also came up with witty and appropriate things for them to say. One of "Dave's" sharper conceits is that far from going unnoticed, the difference in the post-Dave presidency is chewed over by Capitol Hill pundits to a gleefully ridiculous extent.
But aside from Oliver Stone (who makes a very funny conspiracy theorist appearance), the only person who is truly suspicious about the President's change in demeanor is his wife, Ellen (Sigourney Weaver). An outspoken social activist who barely speaks to her husband, she starts to wonder why he has become so warm and personable just as, in yet another twist, bachelor Dave starts to think that the First Lady is an extremely attractive woman.
Though as a veteran of Reitman's "Ghostbusters" Weaver knows just how to behave in these films, she is pretty much overshadowed by the premier farceurs she is surrounded with. Besides Kline, Frank Langella has his power-mad power behind the throne act down perfectly, Kevin Dunn is equally adept as a prevaricating press secretary, and Rhames seems much too funny to be the same actor who played Cinque in "Patty Hearst." Best of all, though, is Charles Grodin as Dave's perplexed friend Murray Blum, an accountant whose stony double-takes are things of wonder.
Despite all these good things, "Dave" (rated PG-13) does sag a bit in the middle when it goes soft and teary a la "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" about the swell virtues of good government. But this is just a momentary blemish on the face of what otherwise looks to be the most coolly refreshing comedy of the season.
Kevin Kline: Dave Kovic/Bill Mitchell
Sigourney Weaver: Ellen Mitchell
Frank Langella: Bob Alexander
Kevin Dunn: Alan Reed
Ving Rhames: Duane Stevensen
Ben Kingsley: Vice President Nance
Charles Grodin: Murray Blum
A Northern Lights Entertainment/Donner/Schuler-Donner production, released by Warner Bros Pictures. Director Ivan Reitman. Producers Lauren Schuler-Donner, Ivan Reitman. Executive producers Joe Medjuck, Michael C. Gross. Screenplay Gary Ross. Cinematographer Adam Greenberg. Editor Sheldon Kahn. Costumes Richard Hornung. Music James Newton Howard. Production design J. Michael Riva. Art director David Klassen. Set decorator Michael Taylor. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.
MPAA-rated PG-13 (language and a sexual situation).