By Richard von Busack
A smidgen of a movie, Elvis & Nixon is about December 21, 1970, the day when Elvis Presley (Michael Shannon) presented himself at the White House for volunteer duties as a “Federal Agent-at-Large” in the drug war to a baffled Richard M. Nixon (Kevin Spacey). In director Liza Johnson’s version, nice-guy Egil “Bud” Krogh (Colin Hanks) and Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters) help seal the deal with two Memphis Mafiosi—Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer) and Sonny West (Johnny Knoxville, the most authentic Southerner in the movie). In a subplot grafted on somewhere during the rewriting stage, Schilling has to leave D.C. and get back home to L.A. so that he can meet his girlfriend’s parents for dinner.
Johnson glues the oddly matched pair together through compare and contrast subplots; both the King and the president coming from very poor backgrounds, both vets, both with a taste for sweets, both with obsessive love for their mamas. The similarity ends there—Elvis was on a swoon of numerology, with his eyes on a mystic horizon. Nixon exudes his usual Nixonian crapulence and awkwardness, seething over old snubs and uttering flatulent pieties mixed with out-and-out obscenities.
In this movie about two singular and lonely men redeeming each other, you’d need two well-matched actors. With all deserved respect to Shannon, he’s no one’s idea of Elvis—gaunt instead of well-fed, weird and covert instead of beguiling. Nixon is a wonderful part for any actor, be he John Cusack or Anthony Hopkins. Spacey has both the silhouette and the rancor to play this diabolical figure—and there’s a trick Spacey does of slowly revealing himself. You don’t see him move from behind his desk until half the film is over; in a movie this thin, something like Kevin Spacey unfolding himself seems like a big deal. (So does the punchline—the least huggy man in the history of Western civilization is in danger of receiving a manly abrazo.) Johnson includes details that are supposed to reveal more about the big day, but they all seem to be discursive—padding to overlook the lack of source material.
Elvis & Nixon plays at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center through April 28.