Elvis & Nixon (Liza Johnson, 2016)
Michael Shannon, like him or not, is an actor who brings an almost violent intensity to every performance. Roiling emotions vibrate from within, his large frame barely able to control a bubbling rage. I, for one, have generally found him a bit much, his manic posturing spoiling films like Premium Rush and Man of Steel (which, to be fair, didn’t need much spoiling). Still, in smaller, quieter films, like those by indie director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Mud, Midnight Special), Shannon has been restrained and therefore palatable, his excess reduced to a manageable (and very watchable) simmer. I am growing to like him more than I once thought possible. Even so, I would never consider him for a quirky comedy.
And yet, director Liza Johnson (Hateship Loveship) has cast Shannon in the role of Elvis Presley in Elvis & Nixon, a movie that mixes genres in an often perplexing way, yet is mostly going for laughs. Based on the real-life meeting, in 1970, between President Richard Nixon and Presley (a meeting initiated by Presley), the film lurches from scene to scene like a Frankensteinian monster that can’t quite find the right footing. Sometimes, the pacing is perfect and the jokes land; at other moments, the whole venture falls flat, tumbling into an abyss of poor timing and sloppy editing. All the while, we have Shannon trying especially hard to relax in the role of “The King,” and only partially succeeding. To add to the oddness, Kevin Spacey (House of Cards) shows up as Nixon, playing him as a jowlier, more happy-go-lucky Frank Underwood. It’s Nixon, that Machiavellian paranoiac, as comic foil. Who knew?
Then again, Dan Hedaya did pretty much the same riff on our 37th President in Andrew Fleming’s Dick, and that worked well enough, The difference is that that film knew what it wanted to be and went for it with gusto. Here, director Johnson never finds her groove. The actual story – that Presley, growing strange in his mid-thirties, sought to become a “Federal Agent-at-Large” to keep the commies and hippies from destroying the United States – is so bizarre as to lend itself to either twisted psychological thriller or crazy comedy, but you have to choose one, unless you’re really clever at juggling disparate tones. Based on the evidence at hand, neither Johnson nor her screenwriters – who include, of all people, the actor Cary Elwes – are quite up to that challenge. Which is not to say that the film is a disaster. Some of its moments are delightfully rendered, and Shannon, miscast though he is, nevertheless holds our attention throughout.
The story follows Presley from an opening in which he shoots his television after watching protests against the Vietnam war. Next, he gathers a couple of sidekicks – Alex Pettyfer (Magic Mike) and Johnny Knoxville (Bad Grandpa) – to help him reach the White House, where the real shenanigans (often funny) occur. Colin Hanks (Fargo, Season 1) shows up as Nixon aide Egil Krogh, and holds his own, but too much of what follows is hit or miss, often marred by unnecessary exposition. If, despite these criticisms, any of the above sounds appealing, my advice is to keep your expectations low, thereby allowing the successful parts to work and their opposite numbers to disappoint … less. It’s far from perfect, but not without interest.