Dave: Ivan Reitman’s Political Satire Starring Kevin Kline

Dave, the new Ivan Reitman political satire, is based on the notion of the double.

Reitman has already used twins in the blockbuster (and rather silly) comedy of that title that starred Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVitto.

In his new, much subtler movie, Reitman affords Kevin Kline the opportunity to do what he does best: light comedy, though refreshingly without the flamboyant acrobatics and shtick of his Oscar-winning A Fish Called Wanda.

Borrowing the premise from Frank Capra, the comedy (written by Gary Gross) might as well be titled “Mr. Dave Goes to Washington.” Indeed, like Jimmy Stewart or Gary Cooper (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town) before him, Kline plays an ordinary man who becomes extraordinary as a result of circumstances he has no control of.

When the incumbent President suffers a stroke while engaging in an adulterous affair, his aides connive a scheme to conceal the news from the public. They hire Dave Kovic, a worker in an employment agency who bears strong physical resemblance to the president, as a temporary replacement. However, once Dave gets to the White House and tastes real power, he begins to enjoy his new position and deviate from his prescribed, temporary role. Need I continue to tell the rest of the plot and its obvious complications?

Kline is most fortunate to be surrounded with a superlative acting ensemble, so that when he is not center-stage, the screen doesn’t turn blank as in other star vehicles. Especially commendable are Frank Langella, who is rapidly becoming an eccentric character actor, as Chief of Staff Bob Alexander; Kevin Dunn as Presidential aide Alan Reed; Ben Kingsley as Vice President Nance; and perhaps best of all, Charles Grodin as Dave’s accountant friend, who comes incognito to the White House and in one visit resolves the budgetary problems.

Students of American popular culture may want to speculate why Eddie Murphy’s 1992 satire, “The Distinguished Gentleman” (whose premise was not all that different from that of Dave), wasn’t very successful at the box-office whereas Dave will be a bonanza.  Murphy’s comedy was quite funny, but it was also imbued with cynicism and disillusionment about politics and power that have consistently characterized American movies since the late 1960s.  In contrast, Dave may be naive and a bit idealistic (which is certainly part of its charm), but in its hopefulness the film may be more reflective of the new regime.

President Bill Clinton has begun a new era in American politics, but who knows, perhaps his new administration will also signal a new chapter in American movies.

Oscar Nominations: 1

Screenplay (Original): Gary Ross

Oscar Context:

The winner was Jane Campion for “The Piano.”