"Protocol" is the kind of corny screwball comedy you thought nobody made anymore. By the end, its ersatz political moralism is almost too much to take; but buoyed by Buck Henry's often hilarious script, a wiggy performance by Goldie Hawn as a not-so-dumb blond, and director Herbert Ross' sure comic touch, "Protocol" is pleasant piffle for a Sunday afternoon.
When an assassin bulls his way through a crowd of gawkers at an embassy entrance, a cocktail waitress, Sunny Davis (Hawn), grabs his arm, thus foiling his attempt on the life of the Emir of Oatar (the stolidly handsome Richard Romanus). Launched like Skutnik, to sudden celebrity, Sunny gains a job in the State Department's protocol division, where her frazzled, ingenuous style enlivens the government's staid efficiency. "Oh, I have the napkins to match your hat," she tells a visiting Arab dignitary.
Sunny is lost in this world of cynical hypocrites, and Ross makes her look that way -- he shoots her from afar, blocked from us by bureaucrats rushing in front of the camera, her isolation framed by the minicams and steno pads of the omnipresent media (you feel as if you're looking at her through a keyhole). When the emir goes agog for Sunny, having got it into his head that her heroism was an act of destiny linking them forever, these highhatted manipulators plot to marry her off without even asking her -- a quid pro quo for a military base in Oatar.
In "Protocol," the government has lost touch with the things that made this country great (wotta surprise). After a protocol visit to the National Archives, where she reads aloud from the Declaration of Independence, Sunny opines, "Boy, those guys knew how to say what they thought. All that talk about happiness -- what governments talk about happiness anymore?" The Founding Fathers help her find herself. And in her big speech to a congressional committee after the marriage plot has emerged in the national media as "Sunnygate," she says, "They just forgot what it's about. That it's about "We the People," And I'm "We the People."" And so forth. "Protocol" is a sort of "Miss Ditz Goes to Washington."
But where a movie like "Moscow on the Hudson" drowned in its sentimental patriotism, "Protocol" cuts its blather with entertainment. Henry gets in some fun with good barbs on Washington life ("The men are all married or gay or work for the government," complains one of Sunny's girlfriends); implicit Reagan jokes ("He has a tough day tomorrow." "Yeah, he has to get up"); and parodies of staffer sycophancy ("She's tough but she's fair. She works 26 hours a day and she gives 200 percent"). This is hardly dangerous satire, but it makes the movie float along, and Ross never sits on the punch lines longer than they deserve.
The mop-topped, goggle-eyed Hawn plays Sunny as a drunk inebriated with life, bringing a goofy style to her role that evokes Jean Arthur or Judy Holliday. No matter how old she gets, Hawn seems childlike -- at one point, she even bounces on her toes in the bathroom and giggles, "I gotta go," like a kindergartener. Chris Sarandon plays Michael Ransome, a bureaucrat reclaimed from politics-as-usual by his love for Sunny, with a realistic uptight earnestness; and Andre Gregory adds his droll riff as an Islamic guru who loosens up to western way.
Movies like this used to be staple of the American screen -- "Protocol" resembles Garson Kanin's "Born Yesterday" almost jot for jot. But where the comedy elements still work, the heartfelt sympathies at the core of these films seem out of place now. You can gaze at the Jefferson Memorial and natter on about how democracy would work if the little people would just get out and vote, but today nobody's going to buy it. "Protocol," opening today at area theaters, is rated PG.