When it comes to tapping into a populist wave of support, Ross Perot will have nothing on "Dave"-- a delightful, buoyant new take on an old theme that will win at the polls because it never strikes a false chord. It displays an unerring eye for current events and deftly mixes political cynicism with elements of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." Warner Bros. figures to walk away with a major box office landslide.

When it comes to tapping into a populist wave of support, Ross Perot will have nothing on “Dave”– a delightful, buoyant new take on an old theme that will win at the polls because it never strikes a false chord. It displays an unerring eye for current events and deftly mixes political cynicism with elements of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Warner Bros. figures to walk away with a major box office landslide.

Writer Gary Ross, who helped bring the same sense of wonder to “Big,” and director Ivan Reitman have done a masterful job, crafting a near-perfect movie in terms of accomplishing its simple goals with great panache, political savvy and ample warmth and humor.

The central premise’s lack of originality — explored from various angles in films as diverse as “Prisoner of Zenda,””Kagemusha” and “Moon Over Parador”– doesn’t detract from the appeal of “Dave,” the story of a run-of-the-mill guy asked to stand in for a major leader who suddenly falls ill.

In this case, the office is President of the United States, and Dave (Kevin Kline), a sometime presidential impersonator and full-time struggling employment agent, gets the call to glory after the real commander-in-chief suffers a stroke while entertaining a comely White House aide (Laura Linney).

Dave gets drafted by White House chief of staff Bob Alexander (Frank Langella , in a role so smarmy it would do John Sununu proud) and his communications director (Kevin Dunn), who fear a loss of their power and want to keep Dave in office long enough to engineer a sort-of coup in which Alexander can take over.

Just to be safe, they dispatch the vice president (Ben Kingsley, in a small but effective cameo) on a fool’s errand to Africa.

In addition to breathing new life into what must have been a rather torpid presidency (the movie’s one drawback may be that the incumbent’s politics are studiously ignored), Dave also thaws the icy, for-appearances-only relationship between the president and first lady (Sigourney Weaver), providing a nifty romantic element.

That, in fact, forms the core of the story and helps differentiate “Dave” from Disney’s “The Distinguished Gentleman,” which also employed a Washington backdrop.

Even so, the film’s most-talked-about element (especially on the coasts and in D.C.) may well be its more than two dozen remarkably clever and occasionally self-deprecating cameos, from the entire “McLaughlin Group” (the president’s turnaround scores an “8″) to various senators and Oliver Stone, who’s actually on-target with this presidential conspiracy theory.

Kline stands forth as the glue that holds it all together, but he benefits from strong supporting performances all around — particularly in smaller roles, such as Ving Rhames’ stony Secret Service agent, who pulls off the film’s most affecting moment.

Reitman has proven his credentials as a comedy director on such major moneymakers as “Twins” and “Ghostbusters,” but moves to a new level here with dead-on-target Capra-esque flourishes, aided immeasurably by Ross’ smart, meticulously assembled screenplay.

Technical personnel add to that winning ticket, from production designer J. Michael Riva’s “western” White House (interiors were actually built on a Warner Bros. sound stage in Burbank) to James Newton Howard’s fine score.

On a different front, it’s difficult to gauge how the Oval Office’s current occupants will respond to the movie, what with its portrait of a relatively young philanderer whose first lady specializes in social issues like child care. Still, those elements will only add to “Dave’s” resonance with the people and, in “The Larry Sanders Show” fashion, its glimpse into what public personalities might act like once the cameras stop rolling.

From that perspective, even Bill and Hillary will be hard-pressed not to hail “Dave.”

Dave

(Comedy -- Color)

Production

A Warner Bros. release of a Northern Lights Entertainment/Donner/Shuler-Donner production. Produced by Lauren Shuler-Donner, Ivan Reitman. Executive producers, Joe Medjuck, Michael C. Gross. Directed by Reitman. Screenplay, Gary Ross.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), Adam Greenberg; editor, Sheldon Kahn; music, James Newton Howard; production design, J. Michael Riva; art direction, David Klassen; set decoration, Michael Taylor; costume design, Richard Hornung; sound (Dolby), Gene Cantamessa; associate producers, Gordon Webb, Sherry Fadely; assistant director, Peter Giuliano; second-unit director, Gross; casting, Michael Chinich, Bonnie Timmermann. Reviewed at the Avco Center Cinema, L.A., April 17, 1993. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 110 min.

With

Dave Kovic/Bill Mitchell ... Kevin Kline Ellen Mitchell ... Sigourney Weaver Bob Alexander ... Frank Langella Alan Reed ... Kevin Dunn Duane Stevenson ... Ving Rhames Vice President Nance ... Ben Kingsley Murray Blum ... Charles Grodin Alice ... Faith Prince
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