Thursday, April 21, 2016

A president meets 'the king'

Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey make a fine Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon. I know . I wouldn't have believed it, either.

Talk about a stretch. If you were making up a list of actors who could convincingly play Elvis Presley, I doubt whether Michael Shannon's name would make your short list. And Kevin Spacey may play President Frances Underwood on House of Cards, but Nixon? Well, Spacey's a terrific mimmic, so maybe.

I don't know who decided to team Shannon and Spacey in a comedy called Elvis & Nixon, but whoever it was deserves credit for a masterstroke.

Although Shannon looks nothing like Elvis -- even with deep sideburns and generous helpings of Memphis bling -- he manages to capture the spirit of "The King."

And Spacey, who can be a great comic actor, makes a more than credible Nixon, hunched over, dyspeptic and willing to warm to anyone who happens to agree with him.

What we wind up with is a rousing snapshot of two paranoid men -- one a president, the other a "king" -- both of whom display cagey smarts.

The screenplay -- credited to Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal and Cary Elwes -- takes a real incident and tries to determine what might have happened the day Elvis showed up at the White House requesting a meeting with Nixon.

Nixon didn't install his infamous taping system until a few years later, so it's open season for anyone who wants to speculate about a meeting between such unlikely companions.

Director Liza Johnson (Hateship Loveship) evidently thinks the meeting, which resulted in the most requested photo in the National Archives, couldn't help but be funny. In her imagination, Elvis didn't kowtow to Nixon, who initially was reluctant to meet with a rock n' roller.

Isolated and accustomed to being the center of attention, Elvis digs into Nixon's M&Ms, which had been forbidden to him, and asks to drink the Dr. Pepper Nixon's aides also asked him not to touch.

Elvis had no interest in protocol; he wanted Nixon to give him a badge that would make him a "federal agent at large," a lawman with undercover responsibilities.

Elvis liked badges, and had been awarded many by various local police departments. He carried firearms (licensed) and, in this telling, even brought them to the White House.

Johnson wisely delays the fated meeting until about an hour into the movie. Until then, Elvis gathers his support system, which includes Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer), a friend who had known Elvis since childhood and whom Elvis trusted, and Sonny (Johnny Knoxville) another -- albeit goofier -- member of the Elvis entourage.

We also see some of the familiar White House figures of the day: H.R. Haldeman (Tate Donovan); Egil Keogh (Colin Hanks); and Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters).

Elvis' team is busy catering to "The King;" Nixon's team tries to convince him that it will be good for the president to meet with Elvis because everyone loves Elvis and some of that love could translate into votes.

There's a bit of a subplot: Elvis persuades Schilling, who lives in LA, to accompany him to Washington. Schilling promises the woman he loves he'll be home in time to meet her parents the next day. I can't say we worry too much about whether he'll make it.

Shannon and Spacey come awfully close to parody with their portrayals, but they're far too skilled to let the movie degenerate into impersonations of two famous men, both of whom had little use for the Black Panthers, hippies and the counterculture.

Shannon convincingly finds the loneliness of a man who long ago got lost in his own image, but who also knows how to use that image to his advantage. And Spacey conveys all of Nixon's pettiness, as well as his deal-making instincts.

I'm not sure that Elvis & Nixon, which doesn't use any of Elvis' music but adds a lot of R&B to its soundtrack, is more than an amplified sketch, but why quibble: In Shannon and Spacey's hands, it produces a hunk, a hunk of pointed laughs.

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