With the presidential election just under one very long year away, it’s more than appropriate to take a comical look at the presidency from director Ivan Reitman’s 1993 gem Dave. Borrowing from the classical narratives The Prince and the Pauper or The Prisoner of Zenda, and with a touch of 1930s Frank Capra Americana, Dave tells the story of what happens to an unfortunate owner of a Washington D.C. temp employment agency who takes the place of the President of the United States when the chief executive falls into a coma (after suffering a stroke while engaging in extra-curricular activities with a female aide). To avoid government upheaval the President’s Chief of Staff (who thinks the vice president is completely incompetent) decides to replace the commander in chief with the look alike. Kevin Kline stars in the dual roles as President Bill Mitchell and Dave Kovic, the presidential wannabe.
This hilarious screenplay scripted by Gary Ross has a mix of touches: mocking satire like that featured in Robert Altman’s riotous mini-series Tanner ’88, and a serious tone as of the famed ‘90s television series The West Wing. With some obvious jabs at the previous Reagan years and the then Clinton administration, the film’s main focus is: how do you coach a virtual nobody to be the most powerful man in the world? The narrative asks you to accept the wild idea that the US Secret Service regularly recruits look alike stand-ins for the president at non-speaking, public gatherings.
As Dave, Kline is in top form skillfully playing the impersonator with passion, as he learns to believe in himself and what good he could do. Sigourney Weaver plays first lady Ellen Mitchell, a woman who is passionate about many causes, but has long since given up on a philandering husband who no longer can be honest about anything. Frank Langella is the power grabbing Chief of Staff Bob Alexander. Kevin Dunn is his right hand man as communications director Alan Reed. Ving Rhames is Secret Serviceman Duane Stevenson. Ben Kingsley appears as the misunderstood Vice President Nance. And the always silly Charles Grodin is Murray Blum, Dave’s accountant friend who helps him adjust the federal budget to afford a homeless shelter for young people.
Interspersed with the story’s characters are numerous actual senators and politicos including: Tip O’Neill, Alan Simpson, Tom Harkin, Paul Simon, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Howard Metzenbaum, Judge Abner Mikva, television host John McLaughlin, Oliver Stone, journalist Helen Thomas, and Larry King.
Not only does Ross get the political satire right, he also develops an interesting romantic subplot with Dave and the First Lady. Before the President’s mishap, Ellen could barely tolerate her husband to say two civil words to him, but after the replacement Dave is in place she slowly realizes the changes in his personality and feels like she is actually married to a different man. She does discover Dave is not the man she married—but she begins loving the replacement more than ever.
For Reitman, who made his fame on silly Bill Murray comedies, like Meatballs, Stripes and Ghostbusters, in the 1980s, Dave was a distinct step up the comedic ladder of quality. Ross’s screenplay received a much deserved Oscar nomination.