Director Liza Johnson has a tendency not to go for the easy laughs, perhaps even to the detriment of the films. In 2014’s “Hateship Loveship,” she almost never allowed Kristen Wiig’s pathetic protagonist to become the butt of the joke, even as she gets mercilessly pranked by a child half her age. Similarly, in “Elvis & Nixon,” the first name mentioned in this meeting of the minds seems ripe for humor at the expense of his larger-than-life persona.
Yet the comedy never really comes out of what feels like an easy farce. Johnson opts for a tone more dramatically oriented where the laughs feel incidental, not the very foundation of the film itself. She deserves a certain amount of respect for taking a more difficult path, but the question of “why?” does loom rather large. “Elvis & Nixon” is a glorified made-for-TV movie (perhaps not coincidentally, Amazon Studios is handling the film and giving it a relatively half-hearted theatrical release) which goes for entertainment value over thematic articulation each chance it gets. Her will for the film seems to clash with its essence.
Johnson seems to genuinely care for the characters, particularly Elvis Presley, played by Michael Shannon in the same way Michael Fassbender portrayed Steve Jobs: conceptual over essential. Sideburns and sunglasses might be his get-up, though Elvis is a walking meditation on celebrity more than anything else. For reasons that seem partially out of genuine concern and partially out of a “Make America Great Again”-style quest for greater societal repute, Elvis decides he wants to become a Federal Deputy At-Large to crack down on the drugs messing with kids’ minds. To do so, he feels the need to engage President Richard Nixon, performed by Kevin Spacey as a variation of Frank Underwood that spent significantly less time on the row machine.
The film is essentially just the lead-up to their meeting and then the meeting itself, nothing more or less. It’s simple and to the point, which proves both a strength and a weakness. Strong when considering how streamlined the whole operation is (“Elvis & Nixon” runs a slender 86 minutes) yet weak when contemplating all the threads of minor storylines that never get the development they deserve.
This is mainly disappointing for Alex Pettyfer, an actor in the midst of mounting a comeback after on-set drama with “Magic Mike” got him blackballed in the industry. As Jerry Schilling, Elvis’ right hand man, he must learn the consequences of his loyalty as they place a great strain on personal relationships. Too bad the film grants him such second fiddle status that his struggles feel inconsequential in the grand scheme of the narrative. B- /