A flinty little comedy gives the Nixon years another turn.

Published August 4, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

It's all well and good to cheer for the underdog, but there are times when it's simply better to kick him. When Richard Nixon died in 1994, he suddenly became an underdog of sorts: It was shocking to hear so many people -- people old enough to know better -- feeling inexplicably sentimental, murmuring vague niceties about his foreign policy achievements, and his, uh, foreign policy achievements. Shortly thereafter, Oliver Stone's "Nixon" gilded history even more shamelessly, portraying the 37th president as a conflicted, complicated man, the victim of one little botched scheme that happened to snowball out of his control. Talk about sucking Dick.

Amid those puffy golden clouds of revisionism, a flinty and deeply enjoyable little comedy like Andrew Fleming's "Dick" is sheer relief, a reassurance that the old enemy is still well worth hating. There's genius in its absurdity: Arlene and Betsy, two ridiculous and completely charming teenage girls (Michelle Williams, of "Dawson's Creek," and Kirsten Dunst) stumble into the Watergate mess and end up changing the course of history. Fleming -- who also cowrote the script, with Sheryl Longin -- isn't out to retell the story of Nixon's shamelessness for Nixon's sake; he's out to have fun with it, to engage us in an elaborate and inventive game of "what if."

If Fleming has any sympathy for Nixon, it's only for his deep and recurrent cluelessness: Fleming paints the former president as a buffoon, but not a benign one. Fleming also has a knack for layering outlandish plot developments -- his previous credits include the wickedly entertaining "The Craft" -- and he knows how to portray young characters without condescending to them or mocking them. The girls are undeniably silly, dissolving into a fit of giggles when Betsy explains to Arlene what "deep throat" means, and they have to run to the window to scream, both grossed out and titillated. But he shows a great deal of affection for them, too. Unlike "Drop Dead Gorgeous" director Michael Patrick Jann, Fleming never bounces jokes off his characters like spitballs or asks us to laugh at their lack of sophistication. Betsy and Arlene's breathless enthusiasm and their surprise at the way a seemingly nice guy like Dick could be so evil are never used to distance us from them.

If anything, Arlene and Betsy are heroes in a grand political farce played out with bell-bottoms and roll-on lip gloss as props, the embodiment of a country's collective disappointment with one of its leaders. Their adventure begins late one night when they run into some "weird guy" lurking in the stairwell -- he might be a jewel thief, they think -- of the Watergate Hotel, where Arlene lives. (They're rushing out to meet the postmark deadline for Tiger Beat magazine's "Win a Date with Bobby Sherman" contest.) Later, during a school tour of the White House, they meet the weird guy again, who recognizes them from their earlier encounter: It's G. Gordon Liddy (played with crackpot intensity by Harry Shearer), and he has the girls hauled off to the Oval Office so the president's henchmen can quiz them to find out how much they know about the break-in. The president himself (Dan Hedaya) appears, thrilling the girls -- and ensuring that he can keep an eye on them -- by asking them to be official White House dog walkers.

From that point, Betsy and Arlene stumble further into Dick's viper's nest of secrets. When they mistakenly open an office door and see a phalanx of dark suits manning paper shredders, Dick reassures them that he simply needs an extraordinary amount of raw materials for his hobby, papier-mbchi. When Arlene and Betsy accidentally open Rose Mary Woods' desk drawer and find a tape recorder, Betsy persuades Arlene (who's fallen madly in love with Dick, attracted by what she perceives as his kindness and sophistication) to leave a message on it confessing her true feelings. Arlene's declaration of devotion, including a breathy rendition of Olivia Newton-John's "I Honestly Love You," lasts exactly 18 and a half minutes.

Fleming just keeps escalating the madness, without making it wearisome or forced, and the supporting cast carries the action beautifully: Dave Foley has Bob Haldeman's crew-cut efficiency down cold. Will Ferrell and Bruce McCulloch play a bickering Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. McCulloch's mannerisms alone are devilishly funny: His puffy helmet of hair is itself a parody of Dustin Hoffman's dry-look mane in "All the President's Men," and he fluffs and plucks at it like a nervous
bird. And Saul Rubinek captures the essential contradiction of Henry Kissinger: How can a guy look so stiff and so puffy at the same time?

But it's the girls, of course, who set the tone for "Dick." They play off each other wonderfully, volleying their jokes with schoolgirl ease, doing their part for the good of the world by informing their friend Dick that "War is not healthy for children and other living things." Dunst, with her sheet of blond hair and yearbook-picture smile, cannily plays one of those girls who's so efficient at being a teenager you can't imagine her as anything but. But it's Williams who wins your heart: Just a little chunkier than the willowy Betsy, and a little more awkward (her clothes and accessories, at first, aren't quite right, especially her left-over-from-the-'60s cat-eye glasses), her Arlene is the kind of girl who would have a misguided crush on a guy like Dick Nixon. Her dreamy pout and her eventual indignance at Dick's loutishness aren't so overdone that they seem cartoonish; they're funny in a way that also makes you feel a little protective.

But by the time she and Betsy have made hip-hugger-and-midriff-top outfits out of the American flag, you realize there's no need to worry about either of them. Dan Hedaya's Dick is another matter. Hedaya is one of those actors who pops up everywhere, and he's so consistently funny he's always welcome. His performance as Dick is no exception -- he doesn't rely on excessive jowl shaking to build his character; instead, he carries all of Nixon's rage, resentment and confusion in his wayward eyebrows. Hedaya turns Nixon into exactly what he should be, a comic villain, when he snaps, "Checkers, shut up! Or I'll feed you to the Chinese!" (So much for foreign policy achievements.)

Hedaya also gives the character a few surprising layers, less in the way he reads his lines than in the way he carries himself just a little awkwardly, or flashes his already-crazy eyes when he takes a bite out of the girls' homemade pot cookies. Watching Anthony Hopkins in Stone's "Nixon," I felt dirty and embarrassed, as far from sympathetic as you could get. Watching Hedaya, I felt at times a twinge of something like sympathy. And if I brushed it away like a stray eyelash, I wonder if that wasn't part of Hedaya's intent, too.

Hedaya is the perfect actor to portray Nixon in a movie that's driven more by tempered outrage and a sense of disappointment than by political cynicism. As far as I know, Carly Simon's "You're So Vain," known to most people as an incisor-sharp putdown of a famous rock star, has never been applied to a political figure. But it's what Fleming plays on the soundtrack as the disgraced Nixon boards his helicopter to leave the White House, and it's what we hear as, in flight, he looks down on the rooftops to see Arlene and Betsy, done up in their American flag outfits, unfurling a banner that reads, "You suck, Dick!"

The use of the song (combined with Hedaya's hilarious and sly performance) are about all the historical revisionism you need: In the context of a politician's downfall, the line, "You gave away the things you loved/And one of them was me," suggests, perhaps overly generously, that even a scoundrel like Nixon might have been motivated early in his career by an actual desire to serve the people. But Fleming would never suggest that some initial flicker of desire could make up for a betrayal as monumental as Watergate. If Nixon ever did love us -- and I'm among the many who see it as highly unlikely -- he gave us away without a thought, and that's Fleming's ultimate verdict. Wherever the fiend is now, he probably does think this song is about him. And, unlike us, he probably isn't laughing.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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