by Jon Bastian
Generally on-target Watergate-era satire trusts its audience too much, won’t amuse the kiddies.
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If you’re old enough to remember Watergate, and to have a first-hand opinion about it, then you’ll probably enjoy Dick. However, the movie shoots way over the heads of its target audience, who hadn’t even been conceived when Richard Nixon resigned twenty-five years ago. While grown-ups in the theatre were howling at references to Watergate figures and historic events, the teens and tweens obviously didn’t get much of the humor.
Too bad Dick couldn’t have been made in the late 70s. But, wounds were still too fresh, people still too embittered. Back then, moviegoers got either the pseudo-documentary treatment of All the President’s Men or the allegorical satire of Nasty Habits. As it is, many critics have lambasted Dick, saying it’s not right to make a funny film about as infamous and nasty a person as Richard Nixon. I would answer with this: his whole administration was a joke—black comedy the first go-round, reduced to farce by a quarter century. Dick elevates the farce to the forefront and takes no prisoners.
The fun starts on that fateful night in 1972 when the plumbers break into Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate Apartments. Meanwhile, fifteen-year-old Arlene (Michelle Williams), with the help of her friend Betsy (Kirsten Dunst) is trying to beat the deadline to mail her “Win a date with Bobby Sherman” contest entry. During this late night foray, they run across G. Gordon Liddy. This chance encounter propels the girls into a series of escalating misunderstandings, eventually landing them a meeting with Nixon and jobs as White House dog walkers. Along the way, no one notices that they are, as Betsy herself puts it, “just a couple of stupid teenage girls.” Everyone assumes they know more than they do. This paranoia, combined with a school-girl crush gone sour, leads to our heroines prank calling Woodward and Bernstein, inadvertently blowing the lid off the whole Watergate thing.
It’s a great premise, but execution is everything, and director Andrew Fleming pulls it off. It’s been said that ninety percent of directing is in the casting, and Fleming’s is flawless. Saul Rubinek plays a grumbling, sarcastic Henry Kissinger. Harry Shearer shows up briefly as a crazed and creepy G. Gordon Liddy. Dave Foley’s H.R. “Bob” Haldeman constantly looks as if he’s about to burst a major blood vessel. Will Ferrell (Saturday Night Live) and Bruce McCulloch (Kids in the Hall) get the honors of portraying Woodward and Bernstein as a pair of bickering, competitive louts. Another SNL player, Ana Gasteyer, gives Rose Mary Woods just the right professionally snotty edge, and Ryan Reynolds (Two Guys, A Girl, and a Pizza Place) has a truly weird cameo as a preternaturally dense himbo who’s mistaken for Haldeman’s son.
Dunst and Williams perform admirably in the leads. If at times these teenyboppers seem too stupid to believe, credibility is salvaged by the sheer exuberance with which they play their parts. Dunst comes across as a somewhat manic Marcia Brady type, while Williams bears an uncanny resemblance to Sandy Dennis. There’s a strange symbiosis between the two as they drift through their own little world, mostly oblivious to the momentous events they unintentionally cause.
Then, there’s our titular Dick. The entire film hinges on this role, and Dan Hedaya gives it his all, with impressive results. His looks, voice, mannerisms and attitudes are all right on the money. Hedaya doesn’t lampoon the president, he plays him straight—and the more sincere his portrayal, the funnier it gets. When Nixon tells a flunky, “Young people trust me,” he believes himself, even if we don’t. Because Hedaya’s performance is so grounded, his gradual collapse into paranoid consternation reaches the proportions of grand opera without ever going over the top. His march into exile is comic and tragic at the same time, and our last glimpse of Nixon, when he suddenly finds out who caused his downfall, is priceless.
If there’s a shortcoming to the film, it’s that there’s not nearly enough Dick on screen. While we’re in the White House with the conspirators or watching Woodward and Bernstein’s increasingly dorky efforts to get the truth from “Deep Throat,” the film sings. When we go back to the more mundane world of Arlene and Betsy, things bog a bit. Of course, this criticism verges on re-making the movie. Dick isn’t about Nixon or Watergate; it’s about two girls and their unwitting brush with history. Still, seeing the high and mighty harpooned is always enjoyable comedy. When Dick aims at its targets, it scores with every barb.
Jon Bastian is a native and resident of Los Angeles. He is a playwright and screenwriter who works in the TV trade to keep his dogs rolling in kibble.
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