Directed by the recently departed Ivan Reitman (“Stripes,” “Meatballs,” “Twins,” “Kindergarten Cop”), “Dave” pulls off the rare feat of being rooted in politics without displaying any whiff of partisanship. Sophisticated but relatable and smart while coming off as erudite, it is a comedy with endless charm and an ability to impart a common sense message without standing on a soap box doing so. Writer Gary Ross received the movie’s sole Academy Award nomination (for Best Original Screenplay), something he also did a few years earlier with “Big” and later on down the road with “Seabiscuit.”
Dave Kovic (Kevin Kline) is an amiable and affable man living in Baltimore where he owns a barely afloat employment agency. He has a side-hustle where he appears at retail grand openings and other events as a lookalike for current U.S. President Bill Mitchell (also Kline). The polar opposite of Dave in every way, Mitchell is a gruff, corrupt, and spineless sort who barely speaks to his wife Ellen (Sigourney Weaver). She takes her mind off of his incessant philandering by doing charity work and performing other typical First Lady duties.
Time for a Replacement
In order to help facilitate subterfuge for Mitchell’s current dalliance with staffer Randi (Laura Linney), his protective staff, led by Duane (Ving Rhames), drafts Kovic for a PR gig and Kovic crushes it. This catches the eye of Chief of Staff Bob (Frank Langella) and his wing man Alan (Kevin Dunn) who want to make Dave the permanent stand-in as Mitchell has suffered a stroke while “being with” Randi. The President is in a coma.
While quasi-flattered, Dave questions the legality of this endeavor but Bob and Alan ease his conscience by pushing the “do it for your country” pitch. With the understanding that this will only be temporary, Dave acquiesces. For a good stretch, this arrangement plays out well—almost too well. A quick and enthusiastic study, Dave is able to absorb the finer details of Mitchell’s agenda, his day-to-day routine, committing the names of his staff and cabinet to memory, and even (from a distance) fooling Ellen.
When it becomes apparent that Bob and Alan plan on using Dave as a puppet and mouthpiece well into the foreseeable future, he slowly figures out he has them over a barrel, particularly Bob. Try as they might, Bob and Alan can’t suppress or squash Dave’s naturally agreeable personality and moral fiber. As “Mitchell’s” poll numbers continue to go up, he starts to think he can do something akin to what someone else tried doing a few years ago in real life: “draining the swamp.”
Cut the Fat
With the help of his accountant Murray (an expectedly droll Charles Grodin), Dave trims some significant fat from Mitchell’s pork-laden budget—an act that turns the already underhanded Bob into evil incarnate but gets Ellen to start re-evaluating her feelings for her “husband.”
There are plenty of politically themed movies before and since “Dave,” where real-life people have appeared as themselves in cameo roles but none come close to the amount found here. Well over two dozen actors, TV hosts, commentators, filmmakers, and politicians from both sides of the aisle show-up as themselves lending the production an almost docudrama level of realism and authenticity. One scene in particular—Oliver Stone as a guest on the Larry King Show—is high-end, self-aware Meta. In it Stone suggests the sudden change in Mitchell’s personality is rooted in a conspiracy (which is technically correct) and something akin to that found in his own “JFK,” which was released only three years earlier.
This goes far in proving just how spot-on Ross was with his screenplay. Getting so many people—generally so far apart in ideology and points of view within the eye of the real storm—to so enthusiastically participate is nothing short of unprecedented and will never likely be achieved again.
How Kline and Weaver (and Langella, for that matter) didn’t receive multiple industry accolades for their collective work here is dumbfounding. As any seasoned performer will attest, comedy is far more difficult and complex to pull off than drama, particularly the “light” variety. Kline pulls this kind of thing off with regularity (“Soapdish,” “A Fish Called Wanda,” “Silverado”), and Langella’s performance walks a fine thin line between parody and dastardly, but it is Weaver who is saddled with the biggest challenge and she more than rises to the occasion.
While serving as Kline’s “straight man” throughout, Weaver gets big laughs during a testy exchange with Langella and even more with just the movement of her eyes in a bathroom encounter with Kline. Six years later Weaver’s comic timing would be on full display in the cult favorite sci-fi spoof “Galaxy Quest.”
Had “Dave” been produced a half-century or so earlier, it would have fit in nicely alongside Frank Capra’s back-to-back milestones “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “Meet John Doe.” It’s a safe assumption that the Founding Fathers didn’t intend for politicians to remain in office for decades on end where their main directives would be lining their own pockets and protecting various special interest groups with the hard-earned money of the U.S. citizenry.
While it would be unfair to accuse Reitman of creating a Capra “knockoff,” it is appropriate to describe “Dave” as something equally unaffected and inspirational. While all of the above-mentioned Reitman titles are enjoyable and worthy of multiple viewings, they also come with an inescapable, check-the-boxes, “manufactured” air. “Dave” was none of those things and marked Reitman’s creative and thought-provoking zenith.
Director: Ivan Reitman
Stars: Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, Frank Langella, Kevin Dunn, Charles Grodin, Ving Rhames
Running Time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Release Date: May 7, 1993
Rating: 4.5 out of 5