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By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 07, 1993


Ivan Reitman
Kevin Kline;
Sigourney Weaver;
Frank Langella;
Kevin Dunn;
Ving Rhames;
Ben Kingsley;
Charles Grodin;
Arnold Schwarzenegger;
Jay Leno;
Oliver Stone
sexual themes and mild profanity

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"Dave" is Mr. Smith in a baseball cap, a cheerful fable about a guileless Everyguy outsmarting the Capitol Hill cynics: Capra-corn popped for a new generation. A case of art imitating the electorate, it's a comedy that rides in on Clinton's coattails, bringing with it a landslide of laughs.

Deftly directed by Ivan ("Twins") Reitman, the sweet-tempered film democratizes the story line of "The Prince and the Pauper." In this case, the U.S. presidency of George Harrison Mitchell (Kevin Kline) is assumed by the affable head of an employment agency, Dave Kovic (also Kline). A decent guy with a good accountant (Charles Grodin), Dave manages to help the homeless by cutting the budget. But in a nod to the complexity of the office, Dave, like Bill, does find out that it isn't quite as easy as he had first thought.

The mirror image of "The Distinguished Gentleman," which saw a con man elected because he had the same name as the late incumbent, "Dave's" plot is similarly set in motion by the ill effects of the office-holder's orgiastic exertions. When the president falls into a coma during a tryst, his power-mad chief of staff, Bob Alexander (Frank Langella), talks the reluctant dead-ringer Dave into the masquerade. But what about the veep? "I didn't want to tell you this, Dave, but the vice president is mentally unbalanced," confides Bob.

Wowed by the perks of the office and overwhelmed by its responsibilities, Dave is at first easily manipulated by Bob and Mitchell's press secretary (Kevin Dunn). But then Dave, a quick study, becomes a big hit with the Washington press corps -- a slew of whom cameo herein -- who debate the source of his new-found vigor and playfulness. He does magic tricks for kids at a D.C. shelter and rolls on the lawn with the dogs that served Mitchell as photogenic props. He makes Dagwood sandwiches for his Secret Service shadow (Ving Rhames) and generally endears himself to his Cabinet and staff.

Even the fed-up First Lady (Sigourney Weaver), who has grown to detest her husband for his callousness, is touched when Dave gets behind her pet project: helping homeless children. "Dave" takes a tough stand in favor of jobs, homes and honesty in government. The presidency, as Dave points out in the Big Speech, is a temporary post, not a reelection stump. "I ought to care more about you than me ... more about what's right than what's popular," he emotes endearingly.

"Bob Roberts" would have looked askance at such calculated naivete, but Reitman and screenwriter Gary Ross are not out to save the free world. They want to celebrate the myth -- "to rekindle America's belief in the decency and ingenuity of the common man," as they write in the press handouts. Reitman, who specializes in such comic broadsides as "Ghostbusters" and "Meatballs," takes a slightly loftier tone here, but he's no party pooper.

There's a smidgen of underlying cynicism and a slew of inside-the-Beltway jokes, doubtless thanks to Ross, a 1980 donkey convention delegate and later a writer for Michael Dukakis. The co-author of "Big," Ross reprises a favorite notion. He throws his protagonist in way over his head, finds enormous fun in his floundering, then allows the little guy to realize he's got to grow into the body or the job.

Kline, so childlike in his awe here -- he steals towels, ashtrays and other souvenirs bearing the presidential seal -- frequently recalls the gardener Chance in "Being There," but with more brain cells. Of course, the genre demands that the American innocent serve as the guardian of democratic idealism. Kline, as irresistible as he is resourceful, makes it seem like a fresh concept. In his few scenes as President Mitchell, he is vaguely Bushian -- which echoes the actual transition of power from elephant to mule.

Weaver, possessed with pizazz in "Ghostbusters," brings a frozen smile and a practiced wave to the role of the loyal political wife, then allows her to girlishly thaw out in the presence of Dave (who passes for Mitchell even without his fig leaf). Grodin lends a grouchy grace note, and Langella is entertainingly megalomaniacal as the Machiavellian chief of staff.

Ben Kingsley has a small role as the Truman-like vice president, and for Washington groupies, there's a Pentagon parking lot full of celebrity mugs: John McLaughlin, Eleanor Clift, Bernard Kalb, Helen Thomas, Tip O'Neill, Paul Simon, Howard Metzenbaum, Morton Kondracke and so on. "JFK" director Oliver Stone also exposes his funny bone, insisting in an interview with Larry King that the president has been replaced by an impostor. "Yes," Stone deadpans, "I am saying this is a conspiracy."

When it comes down to it, "Dave" itself is something of a conspiracy between Hollywood and Washington. It's an attempt to reheat the American pie and hand around the slices, a form of gentle jingoism equivalent to playing the national anthem at ball games. All ruffles and flourishes, it's not going to solve the deficit, even with Murray the accountant's help. No, that would take a tax increase -- which is nothing to laugh about. "Dave," on the other hand, offers feel-good guffaws.

"Dave" is rated PG-13 for sexual themes and mild profanity.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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