“Elvis & Nixon” began its theatrical run across the country last week. It is currently playing in Houston at most major theater chains.
Directed by Liza Johnson (“Hateship Loveship”) and written by married couple Joey Sagal and Hanala Sagal (along with contributions from actor Cary Elwes), “Elvis & Nixon” is a comedy based on an event that actually occurred. Taking place on December 21, 1970, “Elvis & Nixon” chronicles Elvis (Michael Shannon) as he attempts to become an honorary DEA agent. Elvis feels like his country needs him and he’s sick of drugs and alcohol taking hold of our nation’s youth, so he’d like to become an undercover agent who’s also a massive superstar. The film documents his quest to reach President Richard Nixon (Kevin Spacey), meet him face to face, and hopefully get that federal badge he so desperately desires.
Elvis enlists the help of Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer), Elvis’ best friend and producer at Paramount, and Sonny West (Johnny Knoxville) to accompany him on his journey. Advisor and liaison to the FBI, also the man who managed Nixon’s meeting with Elvis, Egil Krogh (Colin Hanks) and Deputy Assistant Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters) are the guys working on Nixon’s end trying to make the meeting happen since they believe that the public seeing Nixon with such a mainstream figure could boost interest to a younger audience.
The cast is the film’s biggest and most amusing aspect. While Alex Pettyfer is mostly forgettable and Johnny Knoxville has made a career out of being himself (aka idiotic) on camera, both Colin Hanks and Evan Peters are outstanding. It’s the chemistry Hanks and Peters share that make their working relationship so fascinating. Next to Kevin Spacey and Michael Shannon, Colin Hanks is the actor in the middle with a performance that’s just as strong. Krogh’s reactions and verbal outbursts, complete with deafening expletives, as Elvis completely ignores the advice Krogh just gave him is hysterical.
Neither Kevin Spacey or Michael Shannon really look like the famous people they’re supposed to be, but they absolutely have their mannerisms, body language, and speech patterns memorized to perfection. Elvis has a fascination with guns and typically gets what he wants since he’s able to use his celebrity status to get his way somehow or another. Seeing Elvis swim through a swarm of swooning ladies and spend so much time in front of a mirror isn’t unusual, but seeing Michael Shannon in character performing these things is another story. Shannon has made a name for himself as an actor who portrays dark, unnerving, and corrupt characters. Perhaps Shannon just had too much fun portraying the angelic drug dealer Mr. Green in “The Night Before.” Elvis may be the most lighthearted performance of Shannon’s career. It’s a different side of the Kentucky-born actor, but it’s a fascinating one.
Kevin Spacey’s transition into the shoes of a president isn’t nearly as surprising, especially if you’re familiar with “House of Cards.” However, Spacey does everything he can to represent Nixon to the best of his abilities. Spacey’s facial expressions alone are spot-on Nixon. It’s incredible that an actor with a 30 year career in the business can still have an ace up his sleeve and impress with the amount of humor and skill he can inject into a performance.
Liza Johnson’s comedic drama wears the suit of the comedy genre proudly and allows it to boast proudly for an extremely short 86 minutes. From Elvis having an encounter with an impersonator who thinks he’s the better Elvis to Elvis using his black belt in karate to perform a demonstration in front of Nixon to the conflicting protocols sequence and the humor found within a bowl of M&Ms and an unopened glass bottle of Dr. Pepper, “Elvis & Nixon” is jam-packed with uproarious humor.
The film also allows a bit of insight, which allows “Elvis & Nixon” to remind the audience that it’s taking place in reality and not some make believe fairy tale. Elvis makes a compelling speech about “the real Elvis,” which is mainly about who everyone sees when he walks into a room. It’s the reason he drags Jerry Schilling along and it’s depressing and heartfelt at the same time. Elvis also gives himself a pep talk in the mirror before entering the oval office for the first time. The “luck meant for two people” monologue is bleak and captivating. It’s as if the film is giving the Elvis character time to step away from the limelight and remind himself, as well as everyone else, that he is indeed human with flaws and regrets just like the rest of us.
“Elvis & Nixon” revolves around an absurd concept that just so happens to be real. The comedy supports its ridiculous characters by giving them a stage to hash out their foolishness, which results in one of the funniest films of the year. “Elvis & Nixon” doesn’t try to be anything that it isn’t. This is a film with fantastic performances and magnificent humor with a natural pace and a fitting conclusion.