Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 26 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for some Language
Directed by: Liza Johnson
Written by: Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal & Cary Elwes
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Michael Shannon, Alex Pettyfer, Johnny Knoxville, Colin Hanks, Evan Peters, Tate Donovan & Sky Ferreira
A meeting between Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon seems like a bit of an odd historical event to stage a movie around. Comedy Central’s DRUNK HISTORY hilariously summed this story up in about five minutes, so to make a feature out of it seems like it might be a tad excessive. Still, with a cast of A-list talent, ELVIS & NIXON is an okay movie. Amusing is a good way to describe this entire film. It’s not great or bad. It’s fun in spots and drags in others. It’s just amusing and nothing more.
December 21, 1970: Rockstar Elvis Presley (Michael Shannon) becomes frustrated with the state of the country and decides that he needs to meet with the President of the United States, Richard Nixon (Kevin Spacey). Talking to the country’s leader is no easy feat, but Elvis doesn’t see any problem in walking up to the White House gates and requesting an urgent sit-down with the POTUSA. As you might expect from the film’s premise, humorous circumstances arise and the meeting concludes in one of the most bizarre photographs to ever be taken within the White House walls. Also, there are a couple of subplots featuring Nixon’s advisors (Colin Hanks and Evan Peters) and Elvis’s childhood friend (Alex Pettyfer).
Credit to ELVIS & NIXON, because this film occasionally goes deeper than it would seem a story about Elvis meeting Nixon would go. The movie’s first half is devoted to the meeting’s set-up, with White House officials desperately trying to make Nixon see the benefits of meeting with the country’s most famous celebrity and Elvis’s friends trying to control his erratic behavior. The king of rock-and-roll attempts to bring guns on an airplane within the first ten minutes. There’s also a subplot involving Alex Pettyfer’s Jerry Schilling attempting to make it back home to meet his girlfriend’s parents, all while Elvis demands that he remain by his side.
The performances are solid enough to raise the material above its meager script. Kevin Spacey’s Nixon make-up didn’t quite sell on him being one of the most notorious presidents in history, but his acting abilities triumphed over the so-so make-up job. Spacey also gets lots of laughs as his potty-mouth and stern demeanor conflicts with Elvis’s cool cat demeanor. Colin Hanks and Evan Peters are somewhat funny as two of his advisors, both of their characters also had a hand in the eventual Watergate scandal.
Although Michael Shannon is a fantastic performer, I wasn’t too sure about him as Elvis and he barely (if at all) resembles the celebrity he’s playing. However, Shannon sells his role with charisma, over-the-top swagger and a laid-back attitude. The best pre-meeting scenes see him going into a donut shop (among jazz-loving African-Americans who call him out for not being original) and reflecting on how people only see him as an icon (not a human being). The latter scene is easily the best moment of the film as it brings to light something that celebrities might struggle with on a daily basis. Johnny Knoxville is disappointingly underused as one of the King’s best friends, but Alex Pettyfer is competent as Schilling.
ELVIS & NIXON occasionally gets too over-the-top for its own good. This is mainly showcased in a scene that involves Shannon’s Elvis and Knoxville’s Sonny West giving a karate demonstration to Nixon. Shannon initially protested the scene saying that it was too silly and I agree with that point. That whole moment is cringe-worthy and doesn’t fit the semi-realistic feeling of the rest of the film at all. There are still very funny bits in people’s star-struck reactions to Elvis, especially when a crappy Elvis impersonator believes Shannon’s King to be a fellow imitator.
In the short span of 86 minutes, ELVIS & NIXON comes dangerously close to wearing out its welcome. The film is seemingly desperate to fill the feature-length running time by adding unnecessary subplots. Though the Schilling storyline marginally works, it does feel cheesy and like a last-minute addition to the proceedings. The same can be said about Colin Hanks and Evan Peters, who are both regulated to a few lines after the titular meeting begins. Good acting and amusing moments considered, ELVIS & NIXON’s story is funnier and more entertaining as a brief segment on DRUNK HISTORY. This film is an okay time-killer if you cannot find anything better to watch.