I don’t believe there’s any direction to take “Elvis & Nixon” in but as an absurdist comedy. Good thing Liza Johnson sees it the same way I do, directing the cinematic meeting of “The King” Elvis Presley and President Richard Nixon as an absurdist comedy. Screenwriters Joey & Hanala Sagal seen it this way too, as did their co-writer Cary Elwes, originally set to direct. The idea came twofold: first from the infamous image of the two powerhouses together, the second a conversation at Cassian Elwe’s Christmas party in regard to Elvis’ badge. Jerry Schilling, longtime friend of Elvis and played in the film by Alex Pettyfer, acted as an executive producer on the film, so maybe some of the absurdity is truly grounded in reality. I won’t pretend to know the facts, just relay the details of the film.
That’s the funniest thing about the film: no common person watching the film knows the facts. They know what they see on screen is absurd, and most will likely come to the conclusion that this is all a fabrication for entertainment purposes. And yet, there’s that small ounce of belief that what’s being witnessed could in fact be true. The reasoning and beliefs imbued in both Elvis & Nixon are so preposterous that it matches their boisterous personalities, at least the ones the general public are familiar with. It’s not as hard to suspend disbelief that the events taking place in this film are a work of reality, no matter how big my doubts are. Even if it is entirely fictional, it’s entertainingly so!
What makes it easy to believe it to be real are the performances of Michael Shannon as Elvis Presley and Kevin Spacey as Richard Nixon. Both won’t go down in history as the best in their respective roles; neither really look like their counterparts and only nail some of their mannerisms. Where they shine, and where others have faltered, is in tapping into their counterparts’ mindsets. Both Elvis & Nixon believe in their viewpoints so much that it defines them. Both are larger than life personalities who don’t see themselves as caricatures. They view themselves as hard-working Americans who’ve fought tooth and nail to get to where they’re at. Their cockamamie plans don’t seem that way in their heads, with their steadfast approaches truly leading me to believe their reasoning for meeting was factual. Removed from the film I’d probably think otherwise, but in context I was hoodwinked.
The art of comedy is in having the absurdists believe in their madness. If they go along with the joke, it’s no longer funny. The gag is in them believing what they’re doing is right, almost a farcical sense of integrity. Both Elvis & Nixon buy into their hype, resulting in their actions garnering many a hearty laugh. Michael Shannon believed the scene in which Elvis busts out a karate demonstration to Nixon to be too over-the-top, yet I felt it was perfectly in line with Elvis’ mindset. He just got striking a deal with a man he supposedly idolizes, so of course he’d show off his skills to his new friend. This is the same man that would purchase his friend a ranch because his fiancé loves horses. No doubt he’d bust out karate for the President of the United States.
Elvis wants to meet with President Nixon in order to go undercover as a DEA agent, or an Agent-at-Large as he puts it, and combat the war on drugs. His plan is to infiltrate popular bands such as The Rolling Stones and The Grateful Dead, whom he believes are brainwashing the youth into doing drugs, and break them down from within. He never goes into full detail, but I presume he imagines himself arresting the bandmates on the grounds of drug use in spectacular fashion. Why The King wouldn’t just brainwash the youth with anti-drug songs never crosses his mind, mainly because it doesn’t feed into his detective fantasies. This is a man that takes pride and joy in having his district police station bestowing upon him a badge, so much so they’re just beneath his wife and children in importance.
Elvis doesn’t meet with Nixon until a little over an hour into the film, and even then the meeting only lasts for roughly fifteen minutes of screen time (the film is a paltry eighty-six minutes). The first hour is prep, getting us comfortable with the eccentricities of both men, mainly Elvis. We see Elvis mingling with the public, wooing an airport clerk and Memphis officers into allowing him to board a plane with concealed firearms simply due to his star power. Elvis may believe himself to be a common man bestowed by God the greatest of luck, but he’s no fool: he knows his worth and knows how to flaunt it (much like a certain President he’ll soon meet). He also encounters Elvis impersonators who don’t believe him to be the man himself, an uncomfortable scenario at a Washington D.C. donut shop that he smoothly takes control over, and the funniest scene in the film: driving up to the gates of the White House to deliver a handwritten letter to the President. The bewilderment on the guards’ faces elicits a huge laugh! Discovering Presley’s handwriting resembles that of a child is the icing on the cake.
Sprinkled in throughout are insights into Nixon’s psyche. He’s as stubborn and shortsighted as one would expect, but with more of a nuance to him. Spacey doesn’t play the role for laughs because he and Johnson know the humor comes from his obliviousness. It’s far funnier to hear him complain about nap time being disturbed to meet with a pop star seriously than it would for Spacey to utter the line with his arms flailing about. Same goes for Michael Shannon’s portrayal of Elvis despite the welcoming opportunity to chew the scenery (which he most certainly does). This could’ve easily been akin to an outrageous “Saturday Night Live” sketch, but is funnier because of how reserved it all is.
It may have worked better as a sketch in the long run, or at least a short film. Even at eighty-six minutes, the film feels too long. Elvis’ relationship with his best friends/assistants, Jerry & Sonny (Johnny Knoxville), comes across more like padding than an insight into the mindset of a delusional popstar. Jerry’s relationship woes fall flat, possibly only included due to the real-life Jerry’s involvement as executive producer. Nixon’s assistants, Krogh (Colin Hanks) & Chapin (Evan Peters), suffer the same fate. The only time these four men add anything of substance is in playing the straight men. There’s a humorous segment in which both parties brief the other on the rules of conduct of meeting their boss, showcasing that both personalities believe themselves to be top dog.
Even when it overstays its welcome, “Elvis & Nixon” is not without its laughs. It’s a charming and breezy watch that rightfully never takes itself too seriously. To expect anything more would be criminal.
Final Rating: B