Even John Dean had better lines than this

Review: `Dick,' the movie, is the dirtiest trick of all.

August 04, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Dying is easy. Comedy's hard. Satire is even harder, and political satire is harder still.

These truths are painfully self-evident in "Dick," a movie that takes a promising idea -- what if two 15-year-old girls had crossed paths with Richard Nixon during the height of the Watergate crisis, then proceeded to change the course of history? -- and turns it into a muddled, unfocused mess.

Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams star as Betsy Jobs and Arlene Lorenzo, two best friends who happen to be hanging out in Arlene's apartment in the Watergate complex when some guys in white gloves are up to dirty tricks across the way. Betsy and Arlene meet G. Gordon Liddy in a dark hallway. Liddy is played by Harry Shearer, satirical genius and star of such trenchant examples of the genre as "This Is Spinal Tap" and "The Simpsons."

Days later, during a school tour of the White House, the girls see Liddy again. This time he has a piece of paper stuck to his shoe -- a list of names and numbers with the acronym CREEP on the top -- which they save for their scrapbook. On that same tour, they befriend Nixon's dog Checkers, and the president appoints them his official dog walkers. (Nixon is played in a virtuoso performance by Dan Hedaya, who gives Anthony Hopkins a run for his money here.)

During their White House career, Betsy and Arlene proceed to make their presence felt on domestic and international policy alike: When Betsy complains her brother has been drafted, the Vietnam War ends miraculously; the Cold War thaws when Brezhnev and Nixon share a few of the girls' marijuana-laced cookies; and a prank phone call to the Washington Post winds up with them meeting Woodward and Bernstein in a shadowy parking lot.

As clever as the set-up is, "Dick" founders for a number of reasons, chiefly a fluttery performance by Dunst, whose idea of characterization seems to be mainly flailing her arms and squealing. Williams, whose Arlene develops a major crush on the prez, is better, especially during a cleverly staged fantasy sequence in which Nixon shows up on a white stallion -- gray suit, brogans, hunched shoulders and all.

But that scene is one of only a few genuinely amusing set pieces in a film that doesn't seem to have a clear idea of its audience. (Indeed, the only other scenes that earn their laughs involve John Dean's conversion predicated on Nixon kicking his dog, as well as someone floating the theory that Nixon's paranoia stemmed from those cookies.)

Its cast of "Kids in the Hall" and "Saturday Night Live" alumni, as well as its sophomoric humor, seems geared toward an audience too young to understand jokes about Plumbers and Creeps. And, with its surfeit of cheap jokes involving its own double-entendre title, "Dick" isn't incisive enough to entertain filmgoers old enough to understand those references.

Not only does "Dick" have no idea of its constituency, it clearly hasn't a clue to its human resources. Of the many missteps that bedevil "Dick," putting Harry Shearer in a laugh-free role should be an impeachable offense.

`Dick'

Starring Kirsten Dunst, Michelle Williams, Dan Hedaya, Harry Shearer, Will Ferrell, Dave Foley

Directed by Andrew Fleming

Released by Columbia Pictures

Rated PG-13 (sex-related humor, drug content and language)

Running time 90 minutes

Sun score *

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