Based on a true-ish, larger-than-life story, Elvis & Nixon sounds like a fabricated clash of public icons, but I assure you this craziness actually happened (karate chops and all?). In 1970, Elvis drove up to the White House, knocked on the door, and demanded a pow-wow with President Nixon. A conversation was had and Elvis was bestowed a power some lawmakers forgot even existed. It’s an obscure, influential, and epic moment from America’s past, begging for a cinematic retelling, yet we feel none of the importance that director Liza Johnson strives to deliver. This swanky 70s time machine dresses the part and talks the talk, but fails to honor such patriotic prestige with a story truly deserving of such Mt. Rushmore-worthy weirdness.
Shannon stars as the hand-waving, self-proclaimed “King” who needs no introduction – Elvis Presley. His musicianship is the stuff of legends, but this isn’t a movie about making albums and dealing with stardom. This is about Elvis’ wish to become a Federal Agent-At-Large, so he could prevent America’s youth from becoming brainwashed by Communism and drugs.
Elvis essentially kidnaps his best friend, Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer), and storms the gates of Washington, DC to score a personal meeting with President Richard Nixon (Kevin Spacey). Pre-Watergate, the grouchy Republican wants nothing to do with Elvis’ cool-cat routine, until his daughter demands a change of heart. So, because of his start-struck child, Nixon invites the rockstar inside, only to find Elvis may not be the snobby pretty-boy he once assumed. The rest, as they say, is history.
Weird, bizarre history.
For as fun and whacked-out as that diamond-studded meeting sounds, Elvis & Nixon doesn’t find much joy in its material. The whole charade feels like a 70s infomercial. Psychedelic graphic cards and grainy cutaway transitions mimic older technologies, attempting to establish a period aesthetic, but Johnson’s tone is goofy with a capital “WTF.” Evan Peters’ nerdy Caucasian frustration hambones just as much as Colin Hanks’ government official, neither of whom hold a candle to either heavyweight star. Jokes are oversold, and audiences never find themselves transported fluidly into the 70s mentality – it’s more like a time capsule, without the dust shaken off.
Michael Shannon, who plays a nontraditional Elvis Presley, never fully steps into the King’s shoes. Don’t get me wrong, Shannon’s interpretation jives with Elvis’ too-cool machismo, but we never see Shannon AS Elvis. It’s more like Michael Shannon randomly dropped acid after listening to “Jailhouse Rock,” and we witness a two-hour trip where he impersonates Elvis during an out-of-body experience. Shannon boasts tons of sensitive character, and rocks his gold accents well, but Elvis is a hard sell – even for one of Hollywood’s current greats. Why couldn’t Elvis & Nixon just have been Elvis’ White House karate demonstration looped until the credits rolled?
On a worse note, there’s no buying Spacey as Nixon. He’s an insecure leader who flip-flops after falling under Elvis’ enchanting charms (taken from historical cues), yet Spacey’s performance outshines both his advisers in the stuck-up white guy department. It’s kind of like Carlos Mencia doing one of his offensively bad “Generic Mexican Guy” impressions, except with a little more tact (no one is truly Mencia bad). Spacey’s Nixon curses, stutters, and rumbles the same gravely voice, but just like with Shannon, Nixon jaws away like a goonish caricature. It’s a continual problem that no actor strives to be more than a ill-prepared impressionist, which seems more suited for an Off-Broadway production – not an up-close-and-personal movie experience.
Then, after so much buildup, we finally reach “the talk.” Seated across from one another are two Titans of culture, dishing on squares and talking about how the Beatles are probably Communists. Yet, before you can even appreciate their socially-paranoid banter, Elvis works his schoomzing magic on Tricky Dicky like a snake charmer. *POOF* There’s no climax or back and forth. A film that teases one of the most legendary sit-downs in governmental history plays like a class clown screaming for attention (he’s eating Nixon’s M&Ms!!!), and just like that, some closing information cards recap what eventually happened to the likes of ELVIS PRESLEY AND RICHARD NIXON.
You know, in case you forgot.
Writers Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal, and Cary Elwes pick a strange topic to shine a historic light on, and end up glossing over a discussion that should have skyrocketed intrigue. Side plots weasel themselves in, like Elvis almost making his best friend Jerry Schilling miss an important dinner, or Sonny’s (Johnny Knoxville) one-note selfishness, but are they necessary? So much more could have been done to build out these supplemental stories, but this is the King’s true show, and he’s exit stage left for too long. Either go head-first into Elvis’ demands to Nixon, or craft strong supporting characters worthy of stealing Michael Shannon’s screen time. Unfortunately, Johnson does neither, leaving Elvis feeling oh-so lonely.
Had I been a less-attentive viewer, I might mistake Elvis & Nixon for an SNL sketch turned movie. Sure, there’s period-savvy entertainment, and a few truly absurd moments worth Shannon and Spacey’s face-off, but the joys of obscurity aren’t as famously fruitful as we might hope. The allure of all-star dignitaries being played by all-star actors wears off in this after-school special gone cartoonishly mad, and we’re left with a jumbled tonal sideshow. Are we sure this isn’t a scrapped episode of Drunk History that someone tried to craft a movie around?
Honestly, that would explain a lot.
Elvis & Nixon feels like a scrapped Drunk History segment that someone tried to build an entire movie around.