Just when you think you can't stomach another below-the-belt attack, strident surrogate, pandering remark, or mindless gaffe as the candidates fire up their mojos in a last-ditch effort to win your vote, along comes 'Dave,' Ivan Reitman's breezy political comedy that wears its unabashed idealism on its sleeve. Though it simplifies the labyrinthian Washington web and dares to suggest an enthusiastic everyman possesses the wits to untangle it, this rose-colored romp rises above its dumb premise to become an often smart, always engaging film. 'Dave' won't restore your faith in American politics, but it just might give you some false hope when you need it most.
Kevin Kline stars as the title character, a lovably supportive and nurturing head of a tiny D.C. temp agency who makes a few bucks on the side impersonating President Bill Mitchell (also Kline), to whom he bears an uncanny resemblance. Much like Bill Clinton, Bill Mitchell craftily separates his public and private lives, maintaining an above-reproach presidential posture and seemingly devoted relationship with his uptight wife, Ellen (Sigourney Weaver), while dallying with an attractive, wide-eyed staffer (Laura Linney) and engaging in scandalous business activities spearheaded by his wildly ambitious and devious chief of staff, Bob Alexander (Frank Langella). When Mitchell suffers a massive stroke during a sexual tryst and becomes incapacitated, Bob sets in motion a diabolically outrageous plot, aided by Mitchell's press secretary, Alan Reed (Kevin Dunn). The unscrupulous Bob decides to keep the Commander-in-Chief's stroke a secret (even from Ellen) and populate the Oval Office with a compliant, look-a-like puppet until he can bring down the hapless vice president (Ben Kingsley) on a trumped up charge and assume the most lofty position in the land himself.
The gullible Dave is tapped for what seems like the ultimate temp job, and initially enjoys the heady luxury, adulation, and faux sense of power that go along with it. But the longer he inhabits 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and wears Mitchell's shoes, the more he discovers the highly dysfunctional nature of the country, the White House, and his inherited marriage. He sees how Mitchell is out of touch with his constituents, how he has neglected the nation's problems, and how his wife utterly loathes him. And like the self-starter he is, Dave decides to roll up his sleeves and take advantage of his position by doing some much needed good, much to Bob's dismay and eventual ire. As he becomes a kinder, gentler Bill Mitchell, Dave softens Ellen as well, and Bob, much like Dr. Frankenstein, wonders how he can destroy the monster he has created.
Screenwriter Gary Ross ('Big,' 'Seabiscuit,' 'The Hunger Games') captures the Washington landscape well, infusing his far-fetched story with enough identifiable, realistic elements to make it easier to swallow. Hard as we might try, it's impossible not to draw Clinton comparisons or link Langella's creepily controlling character to former vice president Dick Cheney, who served as White House Chief of Staff under President Gerald Ford. Even though the notorious Monica Lewinsky and Whitewater scandals were still years away (making 'Dave' eerily prescient), Clinton's philandering with Gennifer Flowers, among others, and his questionable business dealings were common knowledge at the time, as was Cheney's megalomania, which would fully blossom almost a decade later when, many say, he all but ran the country for President George W. Bush.
Also heightening the film's fun quotient are a host of terrific cameos by a stable of inside-the-beltway superstars. Political junkies will cheer the appearances of such esteemed journalists as John McLaughlin, Robert Novak, Chris Matthews, and Helen Thomas; such well-known legislators as senators Chris Dodd, Alan Simpson, Tom Harkin, and Paul Simon, and former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill; and notable celebrities like Jay Leno, Larry King, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Oliver Stone, who cleverly mocks his own whacked out conspiracy theories. Wondering who will pop up next adds an extra layer of anticipation and entertainment to 'Dave' that tempers the heavy-handed idealism that pervades its second half.
As it marches toward its satisfying conclusion, 'Dave' often adopts a Capra-esque slant, mirroring such classics as 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' and 'Mr. Deeds Goes to Town' in the way it depicts its plucked-from-obscurity lead character and his Populist point of view. Sincerity and fervency overpower the story, but 'Dave' still makes some cogent points about how our country's vision is often clouded by an over-sized government and agenda-driven legislators who can't see the forest for the trees. Oh, how little things have changed in the 19 years since Reitman's comedy first hit theaters.
Kline is perfectly cast as both Dave and Mitchell, balancing the president's arrogance and egotism with his replacement's mix of wonder and bewilderment. He also creates a comfortable chemistry with the initially frosty Weaver, whose slow thaw makes her character more believable and endearing. Weaver nicely channels her inner Hillary, but the portrayal is far from an imitation, even as she exhibits many of the emotions the former First Lady must have felt during her White House years. The biggest kudos, however, go to Langella, whose deliciously nasty performance rises above all the rest. His measured line readings drip with venom and thinly veiled disdain, and 'Dave' just isn't as engaging when he's off screen.
'Dave' is far from the best political comedy, but it's sweet and jovial, like many of Reitman's films. And during the hurly burly of this election season, it's well worth a fresh spin. In fact, as more talking heads hit the airwaves, it may be the only fresh spin we'll get till after we cast our votes on November 6.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Dave' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. When the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu immediately pops up; no promos or previews precede it, and no music accompanies it.
Despite its election year topicality, 'Dave' is a standard catalogue title and Warner treats it that way, fashioning a standard transfer that's easy on the eyes, but not vibrant enough to stoke the senses. The print has been well scrubbed, so no nicks, scratches, or errant marks remain, but contrast and clarity levels vary. Some scenes flaunt a bright, crisp look, while others appear slightly faded and a tad soft. Background details lack sharpness, and colors range from lush to wan. Reds fare better than other hues, but overall, the image often seems flat, dimensionless, and rather dull.
Grain is visible at times, but not intrusive. Fleshtones lean toward the rosy side, but Langella's swarthy complexion is accurately rendered, and close-ups possess nice levels of detail, especially those of Ving Rhames. Blacks are solid, whites remain stable and resist blooming, and shadow delineation is fine. A few digital anomolies could be detected, as well as a bit of faint edge enhancement, but noise, banding, and pixelation are absent.
Though this is far from a dream transfer, it's certainly not objectionable. Fans of the film may not strongly endorse it, but they won't vote against it either.
'Dave' comes equipped with a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track that exudes a fair amount of fidelity, but lacks the pizzazz of a full multi-channel mix. The front-based audio gets a boost from mild stereo separation and good dynamic range, which keeps distortion at bay, but there's not much here to show off the capabilities of your sound system. James Newton Howard's music score fills the room well with warm tones that subtly complement the on-screen action, and the all-important dialogue is always clear and easy to comprehend. Langella's mellifluous tones sound especially silky as they highlight his character's Machiavellian manipulations.
Because talk reigns supreme in 'Dave,' nuances and accents come at a premium. Atmospherics and bass frequencies are muted, but bold elements, such as sirens, possess some pop. Other than that, there's just not much to mention regarding this pedestrian track, which is clean, clear, and workmanlike.
Just a couple of negligible extras adorn this catalogue release. A retrospective featurette with Kline, Weaver, and Langella would have been a nice bonus, along with an audio commentary from Reitman, but no such luck.
Just in time for Election Day, 'Dave' shows us how an ordinary schmo just might do a better job in the nation's top office than the seasoned, power-hungry politicos we usually elect. Ivan Reitman's gentle, often insightful comedy plays one too many earnest cards in its last act, but still manages to fling a few choice zingers at the elite group who run our country. Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, and especially Frank Langella file winning portrayals, and the endless list of Washington cameos infuse the film with a welcome authenticity that enhances its palatability. Unfortunately, the video and audio transfers are strictly bush league, and the paucity of extras will disappoint the film's fans. Yet if you're as tired as I am of the sniping, negative ads, and incessant finger-pointing that distinguish almost every political campaign, 'Dave' may well prove to be a good antidote, as it strives to tell us what running for office and keeping promises should all really be about. Twenty years later, 'Dave' may be a bit dated, but it's still worth a look.