Fun, goofy times with ‘Elvis & Nixon’

A pop-culture moment recorded in a famous photograph — the 1970 meeting between the “King of Rock” and perhaps the squarest man on Earth — was bound to inspire an indie film someday. It’s called “Elvis & Nixon,” it’s loopy fun and sometimes something richer.

Directed by Liza Johnson (“Return”) and written by Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal and Cary Elwes, the fantasy is about two-thirds unlikely-buddy comedy and the rest light satire. It imagines what occurred during the stranger-than-fiction visit Elvis Presley made to the White House to discuss with President Richard Nixon his desire to become a “federal agent at large” in the war on drugs.

Presented as disconnected, deluded and gun-loving, Elvis (Michael Shannon) believes drugs and counterculture politics are destroying America’s youth.
He pens a letter to Nixon (Kevin Spacey) in which he requests a meeting to discuss his desire to receive the above-described deputy status.

Joined by pal Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer), Elvis shows up at the White House and delivers the letter.

Initially, Nixon, who has no love for rock and roll, refuses to meet.

But then Jerry and cohort Sonny (Johnny Knoxville) negotiate a deal with Nixon aides Egil “Bud” Krogh (Colin Hanks) and Dwight Chapin (Even Peters): Nixon will meet with Elvis, who, then will provide an autograph for first daughter Julie.

After a hitch or two (Elvis brings firearms into the White House), the president and the rock star bond in their shared dislike for all things anti-establishment.

The filmmakers gloss over their subjects’ darker aspects. They don’t address Elvis’ own substance problem.

A subplot involving whether Jerry can make it back to California in time to propose to his girlfriend is dispensable.

But overall, this is an enjoyable ride through a kooky jot of history, highlighted by two top-rate actors.

Operating on Johnson’s pleasantly droll wavelength while deepening their characters with darker shades, Spacey and, especially, Shannon, keep viewers smiling and generally believing the weirdness that transpires.

Shannon looks nothing like Elvis, but he lets the costuming handle the issue. With many dimensions, he embodies the essence of his character. Underplaying the role (though an underplaying Shannon delivers more voltage than most actors at full steam), he hints at both the sensation Elvis used to be and the sad mess he will become. He subtly suggests Elvis’ awareness of this decline.

Spacey, with less screen time, combines mimicry and drama bring the hunched, paranoid, unhip Nixon alive — whether he’s swearing, fretting or bemoaning how good-looking people, unlike himself, don’t have to struggle. (Take, for example, those Kennedys.)

When Shannon and Spacey finally get their scenes together, the movie demonstrates what good actors, and a director who sets the tone and lets them do their job, can make possible. It’s worth seeing.

REVIEW

Elvis & Nixon
Three stars
Starring: Michael Shannon, Kevin Spacey, Alex Pettyfer, Colin Hanks
Written by: Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal, aCary Elwes
Directed by: Liza Johnson
Rated R
Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes

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