A Meeting of Masters
A Film Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
Elvis & Nixon is a film that is acutely difficult to describe. I think of recent indie phenomenons in my neck of the woods and they can all be described in a succinct enough fashion. That doesn’t necessitate the entirety of their narrative being condensed into a paragraph-length blurb of course but it does give the audience an understanding of what story they’re about to see unspool before their eyes. Elvis & Nixon is one of those films you try to explain and in some corner of your own mind your thought process with those descriptions goes a bit haywire. That is, as is often the case with such films, a double-edged sword. Segments of the film are absolute comedy gold, striking one hilarious moment after another with such fervent whiplash it almost is impossible not to see Liza Johnson’s direction draw out those bits again and again and again. The comedic gold begins from before the film’s beginning to after its closing frame but there’s a sense of thrilling breathlessness there that the rest of the film simply doesn’t have. There’s just a moment that I recall, a small moment that has little bearing on the message of the film itself but it strikes at the perfect capturing of the mannerisms of two of the most famed and infamous individuals of the twentieth century. It’s a moment where Michael Shannon’s Elvis Presley reaches towards a bowl of M&Ms lying on a coffee table and Kevin Spacey’s Richard Nixon flinches ever so slightly as America’s most famed entertainer so unabashedly pops some of his precious candies into his mouth. It’s a sharp little moment that illustrates what the film’s sharp strengths are but try as it might, Elvis & Nixon finds it extremely difficult to navigate through anything else.
The comedic verve sticks most ardently due to two primary factors. First is Liza Johnson’s sharp and assured direction, which manages to capture the tiniest of fleeting moments were the hilarity is hidden. The aforementioned M&M bowl moment is first and foremost, but coupled with the Dr. Pepper moment it is remarkably hilarious and arguably far more so than it had any right to be. Johnson has a knack for looking for the slightest bits of physical comedy and making them stand out amidst everything else, whether it be Elvis sitting down in the wrong chair or Nixon’s body language when Elvis announced that he wanted to be an undercover agent at large for the Nixon administration. The other primary factor that makes this film a lot more exciting and accessible than it really is is the acting chops of its two predominant characters. The secondary cast is fine, but seeing Shannon and Spacey bounce off one another is a true pleasure. Both are actors of an intense gravitas, delving deep into the role to where one can see the actors in their phenotypical presence, but everything from the grander moments to the subtle physical movements calls back to their real counterparts in a consuming fashion. Spacey’s Nixon is the stronger character of the two, in part because Spacey is a better fit for the about to be disgraced President than Shannon is to America’s heartthrob in Elvis. His getting in and out of chairs is a subtle motif the film returns to again and again and it’s captured perfectly, an emphasis on the realism the film subtly harkens to taken to another degree by a consummate performer. Shannon can’t help but be a brilliant actor in his own accord but he never really seems to fit the phenotypical presence of Elvis, a key towards his never ending presence.
Shannon’s physical embodiment of what Elvis used to look like, however, is the least of the film’s problems. There is no structure to the entire endeavor. It feels at times like a snippet in time, which isn’t inherently wrong in a narrative storytelling format. A narrative has to fit within a structure and the structure may be anything at all but above everything else it has to feel germane to the story that is being told. Here, if the entirety of the film was revolved just around the famed meeting between two men who could arguably not be seen as being any more different, that would have been something else. But the script here wobbles around far too much to give the proceedings any sense of narrative cohesion. It’s as if the film is trying to cover as much ground as possible over various characters before getting to that promised meeting. When the meeting originally doesn’t occur, there’s no sense of dramatic tension whatsoever. There’s the knowledge that the meeting would occur and that dramatic pause feels nothing more than a fluke. The meeting and everything about it was perfection. There was a taut, intellectually stimulating thrill within that conversation that spoke volumes about American society from the mouths of two of its most powerful representatives. That thrill is found nowhere else even if the hilarity is abundant. Perhaps the emptiness of verve in the rest of the film would have been covered by an understanding of dramatic tension from the characters’s perspectives, but none of the other characters really pop and despite Alex Pettyfer’s efforts as Elvis’s right-hand man Jerry, his storyline and character arc is half as thin as the maple glaze on the Original My Ass Maple Bars. Perhaps that’s poetic, the sense of bright lights shining out amidst a sea of shallow depths.
Title: Elvis & Nixon
MPAA Rating: R
Directed by: Liza Johnson
Produced by: Holly Wiersma, Cassian Elwes
Written by: Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal, Cary Elwes
Starring: Michael Shannon, Kevin Spacey, Alex Pettyfer, Johnny Knoxville
Music by: Edward Shearmur
Cinematography by: Terry Stacey
Edited by: Michael Taylor
Production Company(s): Jellyfish Bloom, Autumn Productions, Inc., Elevated Films, Holly Wiersma Productions, Johnny Mac and David Hansen Productions, Benaroya Pictures
Distributed by: Image
Running Time: 86 minutes
Release Dates: April 22, 2016 (United States)
Image Courtesy: USA Today