Directed by Andrew Fleming
Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Michelle Williams, Dan Hedaya, Will Ferrell, Bruce McCulloch, Devon Gummersall, Harry Shearer, Saul Rubinek, Teri Garr, Ana Gasteyer, David Foley, Jim Breuer, French Stewart.
1999 95 minutes
Rated: (for profanity, sexual innuendo, and double entendres).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, August 5, 1999.
Perhaps the sunniest, most innocently charming comedy since 1997's "Romy and Michele's High School Reunion" or 1995's "Clueless," "Dick" is a sly, extremely potent political satire, aided by a first-rate cast that hungrily dig into their respective roles with a vengeance. Moving from scene to scene without a moment's time to spare, the film immediately pulls you into its surprisingly believable, if somewhat improbable story, as you follow the two lovably ditzy central characters that, nonetheless, are thankfully never turned into wild caricatures. The same cannot be said about the non-fictional figures, such as Henry Kissinger and Washington Post writers Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, but who really cares? The movie is just too enjoyably innocuous to knock it with any major criticisms.
Set during the spring of 1972 during the President Richard Nixon/Watergate scandal, "Dick" is, to put it bluntly, a truly ingenious idea for a comedy that both teenagers and adults can appreciate (for different reasons). 15-year-olds Betsy Jobs (Kirsten Dunst) and Arlene Lorenzo (Michelle Williams) are the best of friends who "have less going on upstairs than yams." At the start of the picture, Betsy is staying over at Arlene's house and, late at night, they sneak out of her mother's Watergate apartment to mail a letter to the "Win a Date With Bobby Sherman Contest" from "Tiger Beat" magazine. In the midst of this, however, they inadvertently witness the infamous Watergate break-in but cheerfully think nothing of it. Coincidentally, the following day Arlene and Betsy attend a class field trip to the White House where, cautious that they may know something about the president's involvement in Watergate, President Nixon (Dan Hedaya, doing a fairly impressive impression) appoints the two as the "White House's Official Dog Walkers," as well as his "Personal Youth Advisors." This is only the start of the film which, in the course of its 95-minute running time, Betsy and Arlene often unknowingly become involved in practically every notable occurrence in Nixon's last few months before resigning. What was on the missing 18 1/2 minutes of Nixon's audio recording? Why, it was Arlene confessing her unrequited, devotional love for "Dick," and singing a rousing rendition of an Olivia Newton John song. Who was Deep Throat? Again, it was the code name for the two girls, who notify journalists Woodward and Bernstein about the CREEP document they discovered, as well as all of the people around the president who were associated with Watergate. Why did Nixon abruptly call off the Vietnam War? Because Betsy and Arlene assuredly told him "war is wrong." And where did Nixon get the idea to hold up two peace signs with his hands before boarding his plane? Well, duh! It's because the teenage duo had previously taught it to him!
"Dick" was directed by the unlikely Andrew Fleming, whose previous credits include 1994's college dramedy, "Threesome," and 1996's witch thriller, "The Craft." With "Dick," Fleming tests the waters of bright comedy and political satire, which it may not be as successful at as this spring's masterful, so-accurate-it's-scary, "Election," but is easily more clever with its one-of-a-kind, constantly innovative storyline. This film is a delightful treat throughout, for several reason. One, of course, is that the way the movie incorporates these two fictional girls into the middle of Watergate, and makes it fairly plausible, no less, is an example of clearly inventive storytelling. Two, the recreation of Washington, D.C., circa 1972, complete with stunningly accurate costumes and a perfectly-chosen soundtrack, evokes a time and place that isn't often seen this vibrantly, and reminded me somewhat, in strictly artificial ways, of Robert Altman's 1975 masterpiece, "Nashville," which is near the top of my personal list of the greatest films I've ever seen. And three, "Dick," in one liberating moment after the other, brings off a sort of pure joyousness that is not found in very many of today's films. For all of its knowing, at times biting, references to Nixon and Watergate and the rest of the time period, the movie, plain and simple, ties the otherwise raunchy "American Pie" as this year's most innocently gleeful movie.
The casting of the two teenage girl characters was one of the most vital elements for the film's achievement, and they struck gold with the pairing of Kirsten Dunst ("Drop Dead Gorgeous") and Michelle Williams (TV's "Dawson's Creek"). As the giggly, slightly geeky Betsy and Arlene, inseperable best friends who move right through history in the making and don't look back, these two fine actresses work so well together, and seperately, that you fall in love with their characters the second you see them. With her two most recent films, "Dick" and "Drop Dead Gorgeous," Kirsten Dunst, appearing in feature films since around age 7, where she made her debut in 1990's "The Bonfire of the Vanities," has become incomparable with any other actress in her age group. Dunst has rightfully proven that she can play any sort of role in any type of film, and do it well; she can play comedy ("Dick," "Drop Dead Gorgeous," "Wag the Dog"), she can play drama ("Interview With the Vampire," "The Devil's Arithmetic"), she can play action ("Small Soldiers"), she can play intelligent ("Drop Dead Gorgeous"), and she can play dense (that's where "Dick" comes in).
Complimenting her in every way is Michelle Williams, too often overlooked for her work in the soapy "Dawson's Creek" as the slutty, misunderstood Jen Lindley. I dare anyone to take a look at her in that television series, and then see "Dick," and not tell me that this young actress is a character chameleon who, if she continues to play her cards right, also has a definitely hopeful acting future ahead of her. As Arlene, who grows an infatuation for Dick, replacing all of the Bobby Sherman posters on her wall with ones of Nixon, until Betsy and she overhear him abusing his dog, Checkers, and spitting out curse words and prejudiced epithets about Jews, Williams is both funny and appropriately endearing.
Together, these two girls are irresistible in both their bubbly, kind-hearted personalities, as well as the way they get involved in historic events and yet, in the first half, their greatest concern is when they will get to play with Checkers. If Arlene and Betsy don't come off as the smartest people ever to walk the Earth, they also are wisely not portrayed as completely stupid; in other words, they are average teenagers who still have a lot of growing up to do, but hopefully will never lose that amiable "glow" that they exude.
In the supporting roles as actual historical, political figures, the rest of the cast blends in very well. Dan Hedaya is almost uncanny in his portrayal of Richard Nixon, and even if Dick does turn out to be both a liar and an untrustworthy individual, you still can't help but feel a little sympathetic towards him. This has more to do, I think, with the likable Hedaya than it does with the late president himself. Also of note are Will Ferrell (a "Saturday Night Live" alum) and Bruce McCulloch (a "Kids in the Hall" alum), who are excellent in their decidedly comic interpretations of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. All other actors could have been used to stronger effect, however, including Saul Rubinek, as Henry Kissinger; Harry Shearer, as G. Gordon Liddy; Ana Gasteyer (also of "SNL"), as Nixon secretary Rosemary Woods; and Teri Garr, as Arlene's single mother.
Being all of 17-years-old myself, I was nowhere to be found back in the days when Vietnam was all too close to home, Nixon was in office, and the Watergate scandal was the talk of the country, but as long as you know the basic outline of what went on in 1972, and are familiar with most of the key events and figures, "Dick" is an exuberant, if light and fluffy, motion picture that works on two levels: As a humorous account of a certain, controversial moment in history, and as an unforced, gentle coming-of-age story. The use of popular '70s pop music is also put to often marvelous effect, particularly Elton John's "Crocodile Rock" in a lovely scene in which Betsy tells Arlene what the term, "Deep Throat," means and they immediately go crazy in a moment of childhood giddiness, and also in the exceptionally-done last scene, played to the tune of Carly Simon's "You're So Vain." Andrew Fleming's "Dick" may not be a deep, meaningful motion picture, but it sure is a sweet one.
©1999 by Dustin Putman