Populist comedy of capital improvement, Baltimore - style Presidential material, Kevin Kline reels audience into film

'DAVE' A

May 07, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,FILM CRITIC

Issue No. 1: Could two guys from Baltimore do a better job fixing the economy than all the politicians in Washington? On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 representing never and 10 representing ontological certainty, what's the answer?

The answer, in "Dave," is 10: that is, with ontological certainty, yes. And the wider point -- not to put too much of a homer's spin on it -- is both geographical and moral: It contrasts the wordly corruption of Washington with the down-home decency of Baltimore. It says -- oh, wondrous movie -- the following: Baltimore is better than Washington. At last the truth is getting out!

Though it stops short of explosive comedy, the Ivan Reitman film is consistently amusing in its populist celebration of common sense and decency in the place of sophistication, power-brokering and cynicism.

But while it tips its hat amply in the direction of the great champion of the common man, Frank Capra, the movie actually traces its lineage back to an even hoarier source of 19th-century melodrama: It's one of those "Prisoner of Zenda" things, where an innocent man who shares a freak genetic similarity to an important official is asked to sub for him and accidentally gets the job for keeps.

Is this as old as the hills or what? But somehow, perhaps because of Kevin Kline's boundless enthusiasm and fundamental sweetness of temperament, you fly right by the complete absurdity of it, as well as the triteness, and buy in.

Baltimorean Dave Kovic (Kline) runs a temp employment agency, more on compassion than common sense -- he's typical of this city, lacking pretension and neurosis and self-hatred, hard-working and set in his ways, basically decent.

His one vice is that, enjoying a stunning physical similarity to the president of the United States, Bill Mitchell (Kline), he has taken to performing cheesy shtick at auto showrooms for a few extra bucks and laughs.

Of course, his government needs him. Meaning, he's asked to stand in for the president at a public ceremony while the president is enjoying an intensively private ceremony -- and not with his wife, Ellen (Sigourney Weaver), to whom he no longer speaks.

When the two men meet through the miracle of process photography, what's on display is acting. Same man, same face, same physical plant -- different characters. Bill Mitchell is an essay in phony rectitude and pious attitude; Dave Kovic has a cheesy plastic pen holder in his pocket, a Dacron tie and a heart as big as all outdoors.

The set-up follows: The real president, reaching for that last ounce of sexual strength, blows a brain valve and turns himself into a long white turnip. Thus a reptilian chief of staff, played by Frank Langella like Roy Cohn on steroids, doesn't trust the vice president (Ben Kingsley) who has alarming tendencies toward -- gack! -- integrity. So he convinces Dave to continue in the impersonation, as a kind of puppet president.

Of course what happens is that Dave turns out not only to like the job but to show some gumption and compassion. Soon, he's restoring small-town values to the big-town job and has even called in another chum in the Baltimore business community -- Charles Grodin -- to fix the budget with him, using the practical skills of payroll meeting that so few professional politicians have mastered.

"Dave" paints with a broad, thin stroke. No one could accuse it of being profound as it romps through obvious points about the greed of professionals vs. the decency of amateurs in politics and governance. It's refreshingly blurry as to its own allegiances, not one of those tub-thumping liberal screeds on the moral inferiority of Republicans but rather more generously spirited, finding compassion and common sense under something other than party labels. And Reitman keeps coming up with bouncy new directions to take the somewhat predictable material, greatly helped by Kline's bounce. The best part of the film is the neatly engineered relationship between Kline and Weaver; it's something that builds a real head of emotional steam.

Exit question: Why three stars and not three and a half? Well, it gets a half-star penalty for two sequences incorporating "The McLaughlin Group," that fiery inside-the-Beltway talk show that's usually quite amusing. But . . . they did the group on a weekend when The Sun's big guy, Jack Germond, wasn't there and some pale weenie from San Francisco sat in for him. Like, excuse me? Everyone knows that "The McLaughlin Group" without Germond is like the Orioles without Ripken. Sorry, "Dave," you have to be punished. We play hardball in this town, as the British found out in 1812 when they marched north after burning Washington and got their teeth kicked out.

MOVIE REVIEW

"Dave"

Starring Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver.

Directed by Ivan Reitman.

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated PG-13.

***

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