Perhaps because of the 2012 Presidential election season, Warner Bros. released two movies on Blu-ray dealing with the U.S. Presidency: “The American President,” the Rob Reiner film with Michael Douglas and Annette Bening (1995), and the film under review here, Ivan Reitman’s “Dave” (1993) with Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver. Both films are satires, both are humorous, and both are worthy of high-definition viewing.
I’ve always liked “Dave,” probably because it’s such an amiable film. The premise is entirely preposterous, of course, but it doesn’t seem to matter since the actors and their characters are so attractive. Then, too, director Reitman (“Meatballs,” “Ghostbusters,” “Stripes”) avoids the kind of gutter humor so many of today’s film comedies seem obliged to follow. You’ll find no sex, vulgarity, gross-out gags, outrageous behavior, or profanity in “Dave,” yet it produces plenty of laughs. It’s a good mix.
So, first, what’s so absurd about the plot? As you may know, presidents and other dignitaries sometimes hire stand-ins briefly to replace them in situations requiring the real person be somewhere else. In the movie, the Secret Service hires a double for the President of the United States in the person of Dave Kovis (Kevin Kline), an exact look-alike for the Chief Executive. Dave looks so much like the President, in fact, that he often does impersonations of him just for the fun of it. However, during the course of the quick stand-in, the real President, Bill Mitchell (also Kline), has a stroke during a sexual escapade with his pretty, young secretary (Laura Linney). That’s when the President’s slimy Chief of Staff, Bob Alexander (Frank Langella), and the White House Communications Director, Alan Reed (Kevin Dunn), decide it would be in the best interests of the country and the best interests of themselves if they retained Dave’s services. They secretly hide the incapacitated President (whom doctors give no chance of recovery) in a hospital room in the basement of the White House, while telling Dave it’s his patriotic duty to continue pretending to be the President.
So, what are Alexander and Reed (mainly Alexander) up to with this deception? Bob Alexander figures that if they announce the President’s inability to run the country, Vice President Nance (Ben Kingsley) will immediately take over, and Alexander considers the VP a threat, not to the country but to himself. If he can keep Dave in position long enough (“a couple of weeks, tops”), he can implicate the Vice President in a scandal and get him to resign; then he can force the fake President, Dave, to nominate him, Alexander, as VP. Once Alexander is Vice President, the White House can announce the sudden incapacitation of the real President, and he, Alexander, can assume the Presidency. As I said, absurd, but good enough for farce.
You can see the story is predictable, too. The real President is a cold, hard-driven man, distant, aloof, and thoroughly unscrupulous. His wife, Ellen Mitchell (Sigourney Weaver), hates him, and they live separate lives in separate bedrooms of the White House. One presumes they will divorce as soon as the President’s term of office is up. Dave, on the other hand, is amiable, easygoing, thoroughly honest, a middle-American Mr. Nice Guy. Everyone notices the change for the better in the President’s demeanor as soon as Dave steps into his shoes, although no one (well, almost no one) realizes the switch. Yeah, change is in the air. By humanizing the President, Dave makes him more popular than the real President ever was.
Now, why does the film work so well if the plot is so ludicrous and so easy to see in advance? Two things, the main one being the cast. Kline is a fine actor who is able to alternate straight dramatic performances with comedic ones. After I saw him in “French Kiss,” a romantic comedy with Meg Ryan, a year or two after “Dave,” I thought he would make a perfect Inspector Clouseau if Hollywood ever decided to revive the series. Some years later I saw Kline’s name attached to just such a project, and it got my hopes up until later I discovered that Kline would be playing straight man to the wholly inappropriate Steve Martin in the movie. Too bad.
Also, Sigourney Weaver is ideal as the First Lady. Her character is smart, dignified, caring, and, above all, believable, giving the movie an air of authenticity. Langella as the villain, is a wonderful snake; Ving Rhames plays a tough-minded Secret Service convincingly; Charles Grodin plays the role of a minor but amusingly bemused accountant well; and Kingsley and Dunn are their usual competent selves.
Just as important, director Reitman gives the movie an additional air of truthfulness by including in it a number of real-life politicians, journalists, and celebrities, folks like Fred Barnes, Eleanor Clift, Sen. Christopher Dodd, Sen. Tom Harkin, Bernard Kalb, Michael Kinsley, Morton Kondracke, Jay Leno, Chris Matthews, John McLaughlin, Bob Novak, House Speaker Tip O’Neill, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sen. Paul Simon, Sen. Alan Simpson, Ben Stein, Helen Thomas, and others. We even see Oliver Stone on Larry King’s show declaring the whole change in the President’s behavior “a conspiracy.”
There are a lot of good laughs in “Dave,” and the satiric points remain as relevant today as ever. It’s also a delightful romantic comedy in its way as well. The only real question the audience has is how the filmmakers are going to resolve the obvious conflicts, yet it shouldn’t surprise us how smoothly Reitman and screenwriter Gary Ross handle the situation. Remember, they’re good at their job and this is still farce.
The film also reminds us that for a time, the President of the United States is the most-powerful man in the world. But thanks to the genius of our Constitution, it’s only a temp job. “Dave” is funny and heartwarming, a good movie all the way around.
As is often their wont, the Warner Bros. video engineers use only a single-layer BD25 to transfer the movie to Blu-ray, using an MPEG-4/AVC encode to capture the film in its native aspect ratio, 1.85:1 (rendered here at 1.78:1 to fit a widescreen television). The image is somewhat soft and dusky, with a few scenes looking almost blurred by high-definition standards. Colors are OK, if a tad pastel and veiled; and facial tones are usually too dark for absolute realism. A light film grain gives the picture a pleasingly lifelike texture, and the print used appears to be blemish free.
The soundtrack comes in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo, which is about all the movie requires, given that it’s mostly dialogue, with a little light background music. The audio does its job with a quiet efficiency.
Unless you’re counting the featurette, there are not a lot of extras on the disc. You’ve got the brief, six-and-a-half minute “The Making of Dave,” and that’s about it. Otherwise, there are twenty-seven scene selections; a theatrical trailer; English, German, Spanish, and Portuguese spoken languages; French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles; and English and German captions for the hearing impaired.
“Dave” is not a great screen comedy, and I doubt that it will ever become a classic in the sense that generations from now people will be singing its praises. However, it is an affable, good-natured comedy, thanks to its stars and director, who never push it too far beyond gentle political and social satire and light romance. I continue to admire the movie and look forward to further viewings as time goes on.