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Tricky 'Dick': A Bungle of Laughs

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 4, 1999

  Movie Critic

Michelle Williams and Kirsten Dunst wind up in the middle of the Watergate scandal in "Dick." (Columbia Pictures)

Andrew Fleming
Kirsten Dunst;
Michelle Williams;
Dan Hedaya;
Will Ferrell;
Dave Foley;
Jim Breuer;
Ted McGinley;
Saul Rubinek
Running Time:
1 hour, 33 minutes
For drug references and language
"Dick" is more fun than you ever thought you'd have with Richard Nixon, who's fricasseed to a fare-thee-well in this wickedly funny hybrid of coming-of-age comedy and pointed political satire. The humor is biting but not bitter, because director Andrew Fleming and his co-writer, Sheryl Longin, are rather fond of their executive monster. And even those who still harbor a grudge against the Old Trickster may come to see their point.

Set circa 1972, "Dick" is a historically inaccurate account of the events that turned the president of the United States into prey and the media into sharks in a perpetual feeding frenzy. It's hard to believe, but in that day the shredding of documents passed for a hot time.

If it hadn't been for "those muckraking bastards from The Washington Post," as Nixon (Dan Hedaya) dubs Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the American people might be as clueless today as the movie's delightfully ditzy 15-year-old heroines: Betsy Jobs (Kirsten Dunst) and Arlene Lorenzo (Michelle Williams), alias Deep Throat.

Arlene, a resident of the Watergate, and Betsy, her best friend, run into the mysterious G. Gordon Liddy (Harry Shearer) in a darkened stairwell after mailing Arlene's last-minute entry in the "Win a Date With Bobby Sherman" contest. They don't know it, but they are witnessing the start of the Watergate break-in and are now major players in a scandal that has left the nation cynical to this day.

The next morning, Arlene and Betsy join their classmates for a tour of the White House, where the girls run into Liddy once again. Fearing that they know too much, Liddy spirits them off to the West Wing, where Bob Haldeman (Dave Foley) asks them how they feel when they think about their president. "We don't really think about him that much," say the girls.

They subsequently meet Nixon, who is distraught because his dog, Checkers – probably more like the grandson of Checkers – doesn't like him. "Johnson's dog liked him," the president grumbles. "Kennedy's dog liked him. . . . But Checkers doesn't like me!"

The girls coo, "What a cute doggie," Checkers wags all over, and the next thing you know, Nixon makes them the official White House dog walkers.

Arlene and Betsy are initially oblivious to the events unfolding around them. They might be dumb blond bubbleheads, but they follow a strict moral code and question the propriety of their every act. And yet when Nixon tells them he uses all those shredded documents to sculpt papier-mache figurines, they have no reason not to believe him.

But "Dick" is about the loss of innocence, and in time Arlene and Betsy hear and see things that rouse their suspicions, leading them to contact Woodward and Bernstein, riotously caricatured by Will Ferrell and Bruce McCulloch, who gets maximum comic mileage out of his black shag wig.

Hedaya may be spoofing Nixon, but he is no less adept at capturing the president's shriveled soul than Anthony Hopkins was in Oliver Stone's "Nixon." The actors playing Nixon loyalists clearly revel in their outlandish parodies, particularly Saul Rubinek as Henry Kissinger, who is reduced to discussing foreign policy with Betsy and Arlene – and being reminded by them that "war is not healthy for children and other living things."

Grouses Nixon, "Why don't you think of those kind of things, Henry?"

While some of the Watergate references might go over a modern teen's pierced, tattooed, green, bald or braided head, those who've seen "All the President's Men" will know enough to recognize the caricatures of "Woodstein" and the plumbers. And Dunst and Williams, with their giggly comic chemistry, loopy charm and resourcefulness, can be universally appreciated.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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