Sunday, May 1, 2016

'Elvis & Nixon' review

In the trailer for Elvis & Nixon, the booming voiceover tells us that of all the photographs in the national archives, the 1970 image of Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon is the most requested. I'll be honest, I don't think I'd ever even seen the picture before watching that trailer. Nor did I know that a meeting between Elvis and Nixon was actually a big deal. Essentially, director Liza Johnson's film has the advantage of working with obscurity and the unknown. This little-known slice of history is pretty much undocumented beyond the picture, and I would bargain that most Americans born after 1970 have very little knowledge of the subject. After all, the history curriculums have changed a little bit in recent years. With no tapes or recordings of the meeting, Johnson, screenwriters Cary Elwes and Joey and Hannah Segal, and stars Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey have the advantage of taking this movie absolutely anywhere. And with that freedom, Elvis & Nixon heads into some insightful, funny, and terrifically bizarre directions.

The setup is relatively simple. It's late in 1970, and Elvis Presley (played with an oddball energy by Michael Shannon) is watching the downfall of the country from the comfort of his home in Graceland. Violence, protests, drugs- all of these things conflict with Elvis' ideal view of the country that he knows and loves. With that in mind, he decides that he'll head to Washington to meet with Preisdent Richard Nixon (Kevin Spacey) in the hopes of becoming a Federal Agent-at large. Elvis is helped by Jerry (Alex Pettyfer), a longtime friend and colleague of the King, and Sonny (Johnny Knoxville), a somewhat sleazy associate. Jerry and Elvis are having their own relationship issues and their respective internal battles play a huge part in the narrative. 

On the flip side of things, Richard Nixon is stuck with some pretty unfavorable ratings, mostly due to the fact that the country is in a somewhat messy state. Top advisors Bud Krogh (Colin Hanks) and Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters) are looking for a famous ally, and when Elvis shows up at the gate of the White House, they see it as a golden PR opportunity. Despite some initial hesitance from the President, Krogh and Chapin are able to set up the interview, which ends up taking all kinds of weird and wacky turns. In the end, it turns out that Elvis and Nixon might not be so different after all.

Elvis & Nixon, in the grand scheme of the modern movie climate, is a strange little flick. Coming from Amazon Studios and Bleecker Street, the film barely even received a marketing push, with only one trailer ever hitting the web. In addition, the studios dumped it into 381 theaters on opening weekend, coming off a lowkey premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival and with very little buzz (although critics did enjoy the film, which boasts a 76% certified fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes). The box office receipts have shown, as the film was essentially DOA last weekend. Which is unfortunate, because this is actually a fun little movie. Short, sweet, and tremendously funky, Elvis & Nixon has fun with its subject, putting an absurdist spin on what could have played as an oddly serious drama.

Much of the credit should go to Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey, who dominate the screen as Elvis and Nixon, respectively. Spacey has less to work with in terms of the characterization of Nixon in this film, and yet, he's able to effectively and accurately channel the iconic President's mannerisms. Everything from the hunched shoulders to the gruff voice feels like Nixon, and this whole performance is a testament to Spacey's unique skills as one of our greatest actors. Shannon is equally terrific as Elvis, bringing a sense of unpredictability to the production and giving you a true sense of who Presley was as a person. Shannon is both flashy and pensive as the icon, displaying the charisma and the conscious of one of the most famous stars in history. He never quite digs deep enough to find the man behind the Elvis mask, but there are plenty of glimpses of it that prove fascinating.

Shannon and Spacey are backed up by some impressive supporting performances, led by funny and ironic turns from Colin Hanks and Evan Peters as the President's advisors. Big stars like Johnny Knoxville and Ashley Benson basically have brief cameos in the film, but in the end, it's Alex Pettyfer who shines brightest. Drawn by the screenwriters as the movie's human core, Pettyfer's Jerry has the most depth of any character in the film. Reliable and loyal, Jerry is stuck between the stability of his family life in Los Angeles and the toxic insanity of a life as Elvis Presley's best friend. Pettyfer has had bright spots before, but his turn here shows off skills as an actor that I hadn't seen before. It's a really well-done performance.

Director Liza Johnson utilizes the cast greatly, and they certainly form the backbone of this movie. But in addition to that, Johnson injects Elvis & Nixon with an irresistible and goofy '70s charm that flows through every scene of the movie. The opening credits kick things off with a funky, multi-colored explosion, and from there, it only gets crazier. The costumes are gaudy and outlandish, intertwining classic 70's fashion with the flamboyance of Elvis. And of course, the sets are pitch-perfect, a unique blend of grit and energy that could only be found in the 1970s. Everything about this movie has a very bright, fun vibe, with rarely a dark moment coming into play.

Elvis & Nixon isn't a movie that features compelling character development or a deep plot. It's just a really enjoyable movie, where two of our greatest actors have a blast playing two of our most iconic historical figures. There aren't even any pronounced flaws with this movie, beyond the fact that it's an inherently slight film. Elvis & Nixon has a good time for 86 minutes and then it just kinda wraps up. It won't give you much revelatory new insight into Elvis or Nixon, but it's not really meant to do that. The point of this movie is to take two icons and put them in a situation where weird and wacky things happen with the goal of making the audience laugh. And in that way, Elvis & Nixon succeeds.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B                                                 (7/10)

Image Credits: Vanity Fair, The Hollywood Reporter, Joblo

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