On 1.9.16 I wrote that the material in Elvis and Nixon (Bleecker/Amazon, 4.22) seems better suited to a 20-minute short than a feature. Now that I’ve seen it I can repeat that conclusively. There’s not enough here. It’s just a skit, really, about a mumbling, gun-toting, cape-wearing Memphis yokel (Michael Shannon‘s Elvis Presley) who flies to Washington in late 1970 to ask for some face time with President Richard Nixon (Kevin Spacey) and is granted a few Oval Office minutes on the strength of his celebrity. And so Elvis and Dick shoot the shit about how the hippies and the New Left and the Beatles and the counter-culture are dragging the country down. And that’s it — a piece of taffy that’s been stretched and tugged so it’ll run 86 minutes.
The screenplay (written by Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal and Cary Elwes) is all low-key jokes and jive, and the movie delivers the least convincing White House sets and Los Angeles backdrops in the history of motion pictures. Not for one second do you believe that the film is happening anywhere other than in shitty-ass-substitute Louisiana.
Shannon doesn’t play Presley — he plays himself playing Presley for a paycheck. Yes, he also plays it solemn but he always does that, right? And Spacey…okay, his Nixon is faintly amusing in a Saturday Night Live way but the movie is a wash. Everyone in the cast is trying for low-key laughs (Colin Hanks as Egil “Bud” Krogh, Evan Peters as Dwight Chapin, Tate Donovan as H. R. Haldeman, Johnny Knoxville as another Elvis buddy) that don’t quite land. I felt cheated and I saw it for free.
But you know who’s really good? Alex Pettyfer (whose last big role was in Magic Mike) as Elvis’s real-life pal Jerry Schilling. He’s the only guy in the room who seems to realize that the only way to achieve a measure of dignity is to play it straight. All I know is that his is the only performance that registers.
Posted on 2.5.15: Elvis Presley launched his legendary career in part as a symbol of rock n’ roll rebelliousness against the sexual repression and conformity of the mid-Eisenhower era. But by 1970 Presley had evolved into a conservative hypocrite who wanted to do something to stop the scourge of non-prescription drug use (i.e, pot and hallucinogens) among the nation’s youth. On 12.21.70 Presley paid a visit to President Richard Nixon at the White House. Presley had hand-written Nixon a six-page letter requesting a visit and suggesting that he be made a “Federal Agent-at-Large” in the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. Six and a half years later Presley died of prescription drug abuse and an overdose of peanut butter-and-banana sandwiches.
(l.) Michael Shannon as 35 year-old Elvis Presley, (r.) Kevin Spacey as Richard M. Nixon in Liza Johnson‘s Elvis & Nixon.