A Columbia release of a Castle Rock Entertainment and Universal Pictures presentation of a Wildwood Enterprises production. TX:Produced, directed by Rob Reiner. Executive producers , Charles Newirth, Jeffrey Stott. Screenplay, Aaron Sorkin. Camera (Technicolor, Panavision widescreen), John Seale; editor, Robert Leighton; music, Marc Shaiman; production design, Lilly Kilvert; art direction, John Warnke; set design, Nick Navarro, Louis Montejano, Eric Orbom, Alan S. Kaye; set decoration, Karen O’Hara; costume design, Gloria Gresham; sound (DTS), Robert Eber; special visual effects, Industrial Light & Magic; associate producer, Barbara Maltby; assistant director, Frank Capra III; casting, Jane Jenkins, Janet Hirshenson. Reviewed at the Hollywood Galaxy Theater, Oct. 27, 1995. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 113 min. Andrew Shepherd … Michael Douglas Sydney Ellen Wade … Annette Bening A.J. MacInerney … Martin Sheen Lewis Rothschild … Michael J. Fox Leon Kodak … David Paymer Janie Basdin … Samantha Mathis Leo Solomon …John Mahoney Robin McCall … Anna Deavere Smith Beth Wade … Nina Siemaszko Susan Sloan … Wendie Malick Lucy Shepherd … Shawna Waldron Sen. Bob Rumson … Richard Dreyfuss Aromantic comedy about the dating problems of the world’s most powerful man, “The American President” is genial middle-brow fare that coasts a long way on the charm of its two stars. As conservative artistically as it is liberal politically, Rob Reiner’s bounce-back from “North” takes every opportunity to plug pet legislative causes, but anyone who would consider this ultra-mainstream picture the least bit controversial doesn’t see many movies. Pic’s fresh comic dilemma and fuzzy feel-good quality should translate into winning numbers through the holiday season, although reportedly enormous budget will put break-even further down the line than it needed to be. TX:Preoccupied with pushing difficult crime and environmental bills, the chief executive, a widower with a young daughter, has his attention diverted to his per-sonal life when he meets crack lobbyist Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening), hired to make sure the environmental bill retains its teeth. Catching the lovely dynamo off-guard, the prez invites her to accompany him to a state dinner, setting tongues wagging in the capital and around the country.
TX:It takes Ellen a while to come to grips with the nature of the president’s interest in her, and some of Bening’s best comic moments are in her embarrassed but flattered reactions to his admiring advances. After a few gingerly encounters, including “meat loaf night” with the president’s teenage sprig, Andrew and Ellen manage to get onto a first-name basis and into the presidential bedroom, resulting in the film’s comedy highlight, when the entire staff is summoned at 5 a.m. to figure out a way to smuggle Ellen out of the White House with the Washington press corps camped outside.
TX:Long gone, however, are the days when a president’s peccadillos would be politely ignored. Turning Shepherd’s sweet, tentative romance into an assault on morality and family values, Republican meanie and presidential hopeful Sen. Bob Rumson (Richard Dreyfuss) brands Ellen “the First Mistress” and helps drag Shepherd’s approval rating down to precarious levels. This, in turn, weakens the president’s hand on Capitol Hill, placing his legislation, and his status with Ellen, in jeopardy.
TX:Working with Reiner again after their successful teaming on “A Few Good Men,” screenwriter Aaron Sorkin has cooked up some reasonably engaging banter for his two bright, quick-witted, hard-driving leading characters without letting it get tooartificial. In the down-time between romantic interludes, he and Reiner help sustain interest with some nice detailing of White House routine and protocol, from the way the staff hustles the boss from one appointment to the next to, amusingly, the near-impossibility of the president making a private outside phone call without arousing enormous suspicion. It’s pat, safe and conventional stuff, done with professional spit-and-polish.
But this is an old-fashioned star vehicle at heart, and Douglas and Bening are more than up to the challenge, delivering winning turns as A-plus personality types always intent on showing their good sides and not so comfortable letting their guard down. Douglas’ president has learned to take all political developments in stride, but displays his vulnerability as he re-enters the dating game, while Bening’s shimmering strategist tends to become flustered when addressed on a personal, rather than professional, basis.
Supporting roles have been adroitly filled, with Martin Sheen as the prez’s chief of staff and longtime best friend, and Anna Deavere Smith, Samantha Mathis and David Paymer as other staffers. A couple of parts bear uncanny resemblance to real-life counterparts, with Michael J. Fox’s liberal gadfly adviser calling to mind George Stephanopoulos and Dreyfuss’ opportunistic adversary neatly managing to remind of both Bob Dole (Rumson is a Kansas Republican) and Phil Gramm (in demeanor and aggressiveness).
Production designer Lilly Kilvert brings the White House to life with lavish, full-scale sets representing many different parts of the official residence. All behind-the-scenes contributions are lushly pro, although there is a certain flatness and unnaturalness to the lighting in Oval Office scenes in which the grounds and sky are seen through the windows.
Pic was originally developed as “The President Elopes” with Robert Redford long set to star, which accounts for the production involvement of Wildwood and Universal.