The populist spirit of Frank Capra  lives on in Dave , the beguiling 1993 comedy about a presidential look-alike who finds himself running the country when the real president is felled by a stroke.
In this age of cheap laughs and aggressive overstatement, director Ivan Reitman  (most of whose films have been anything but understated) and screenwriter Gary Ross  establish and maintain an airy, delicate tone. Whimsy is the order of the day.
Dave (Kevin Kline ) is the rumpled, big-hearted boss of a temporary employment agency who just happens to be a dead ringer for Bill Mitchell, the president of the United States (Kline again).
The president, it seems, hasn't been getting along too well with his first lady (Sigourney Weaver ) and finds his sexual release elsewhere. To cover his romantic liaisons, he has his staff prowling for a lookalike who can stand in for him.
With a pair of glasses, a haircut and a new wardrobe, Dave fits the bill. But wouldn't you know it – Mitchell suffers a massive stroke while in the arms of a pretty aide. His chief of staff, the scheming Bob Alexander (Frank Langella  in a role clearly meant to bring back memories of Nixon movers-and-shakers Bob Haldeman  and John Ehrlichman ), seizes the opportunity to run the country himself.
The vegetative Mitchell is relegated to a makeshift hospital deep beneath the White House and a story is issued that the president has experienced a "slight circulatory problem of the head." This gives Alexander time to coax Dave into impersonating the president full time for the good of the country. All the real decisions, of course, will be made by the power-hungry Alexander.
Trouble is, Dave is generous, funny and empathetic – presumably everything a career politician is not. Before long he's infuriating Alexander by showing the public a humanistic side of their president that nobody suspected. Political pundits begin noting that Mitchell's slight circulatory problem may have been the best thing that ever happened to him – or the country.
Things get even more complicated when the first lady, who long ago wrote off her husband as a cold, pompous stiff, finds herself attracted to his new warmth and emotional vulnerability.
Dave features so many improbabilities and plot holes that it probably shouldn't work at all. That it does is a testament to the solid performances, Ross' cheery screenplay, and Reitman's delicate direction, which finesses the weak spots and gently forges an emotional bond between us and Dave just as the phony Bill Mitchell strikes up a love affair with the American voters.
Kline's dual performances as Dave and Mitchell hold the film together. It's a pure delight to watch the easygoing Dave trying to imitate the buttoned-down Mitchell, only to have his own expansive personality start oozing through. It's a classic yarn about a little guy who rises to a very big occasion, and Kline has you rooting for him practically from his first appearance.
Weaver does quite nicely playing straight man to Kline's expansive pretender; she brings a delectable bittersweet quality to her role as a woman who finds herself once again falling in love with her husband, only to find it's not her husband after all.
Other films in the series “Everything is Politics”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- October 6: Wag the Dog  (1997) Rated R
- October 13: The Candidate  (1972) Rated PG
- October 20: Election  (1999) Rated R
- October 27: Dave  (1993) Rated PG-13
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler  is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com . He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.