"Elvis & Nixon" Slight But Spirited

Liza Johnson’s big screen embellishment “Elvis & Nixon” is as blink-and-you’ll-miss-it as movies get, the kind of barely-there comic sideshow that typically requires a brilliant lead performance to sustain itself. Instead, the 86-minute film makes due with two pretty good ones: Oscar-winner and impressionist extraordinaire Kevin Spacey doing a fine Richard Milhous Nixon imitation and Oscar-nominee Michael Shannon doing something… else.

Shannon’s take on the King of Rock and Roll is a concoction all his own – part Johnny Depp’s Hunter S. Thompson, part sleepy Elvis impersonator – a performance at once with a deep regard for the 20th century’s biggest recording artist and a tangible distaste for expectation. This is not Elvis – it’s barely a loose approximation – but neither is this the true story of the musician’s famed summit with the 37th President of the United States. It’s merely a hypothetical, righteously silly take on a meeting whose only documentation remains an eternally curious photo – one that the film tells us is the most requested in the history of the National Archives.

It’s the morning of December 21, 1970. A jet-lagged Elvis Aaron Presley and his assistant Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer) mosey on up to a White House security gate unannounced, requesting a meeting with the commander in chief. As would be expected, the film spends more than half its running time on behind-the-scenes minutiae, largely concerning a pair of young Nixon staffers (Colin Hanks and Evan Peters) pitching the meeting as image rehabilitation to the reluctant, eternally grumpy President.

In what may or may not be true to life, Presley’s aim is to attain an FBI badge; not just as a collector’s item, but as authorization to go undercover as a federal agent. To fight the war on drugs and other “anti-American activity” at the ground level: rock concerts.

The screenplay (co-written by actor Cary Elwes and Joey and Hanala Sagal) is at its best when it’s entertaining this notion of what eccentric superstars do in their down time, when their drug of choice – fame – is just out of reach. Shannon’s flighty interpretation of Presley’s rural southern accent is a good match for the material, coming and going in waves that mirror his character’s addled mental state.

A soliloquy about Presley’s sense of self – or lack thereof – is both peak Elvis and peak Michael Shannon, a star playing a bigger star, addressing himself in a mirror about the nature of stardom. Schilling might be in the room with him, but it’s a moment that’s only about the King – sideburns, sunglasses, and all.

If Spacey’s Nixon isn’t nearly as memorable, his grouchy baritone serves to ground some broadly comedic sequences. Spacey is a pro at reading other actors and his reserved approach to Shannon’s antics is the right one. Moreover, the leads’ different approaches to their characters only amps up the juxtaposition between them. And what juxtaposition it is.

The final third of the film is as funny as anyone could hope for, commencing with a droll sequence in which both parties lay ground rules for the meeting and closing with an impromptu Oval Office karate demonstration. (This is not to mention the bizarre presence of “Jackass” star Johnny Knoxville as one of Presley’s handler’s.)

Problem areas include a brief attempt to settle Elvis’ appropriation of black music via comedy, and a weak subplot concerning Schilling’s domestic life. Both are wildly out of place, with the film screeching to a halt every time it shifts its focus off its identifying encounter. In a project so slight, it’s nearly fatal.

But when Shannon and Spacey are onscreen – especially together – the movie is a properly loony tribute to an event about which little is known but so much is projected. To see one of America’s most beloved figures engage with one of its most loathed is striking, even at its most illusory – and most disposable.

While not exactly primed for big screen viewing (its small scale and padded script most often resembles a TV movie), the Amazon Studios production should slot nicely into the service’s Prime Streaming service, where it will undoubtedly find its intended audience. Michael Shannon’s Elvis alone demands to be experienced. Not for its accuracy, but for its lunacy.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: April 22, 2016
Studio: Amazon Studios, Bleecker Street
Director: Liza Johnson
Screenwriter: Cary Elwes, Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal
Starring: Michael Shannon, Kevin Spacey, Colin Hanks, Alex Pettyfer, Evan Peters, Johnny Knoxville, Tracy Letts, Ashley Benson
MPAA Rating: R (for some language)