The best and certainly most amusing theory yet advanced for the identity of Deep Throat is put forward by “Dick.” This audacious, imaginative political comedy will have Watergate buffs in particular, and baby boomers in general, laughing loud and long. But Andrew Fleming’s sharp-witted pic appears to occupy the same niche as the recent “Election” in that it’s a devilishly clever satire about teenagers that, paradoxically, will appeal much more to critics and sophisticated older auds than it will to teens themselves, who, in this case, will surely find many of the Watergate refs flying right over their heads. Sony release is sure to find an ardent, if modest-sized, following, one that could expand considerably down the line in video and other ancillary markets.
Director and co-writer Fleming showed impressive tonal control of tricky material in his first film, “Threesome,” and he expands upon that promise now in his fourth feature. Taking to heart the phrase that prompted some of Preston Sturges’ most inspired sendups of Americana — “Some people are born great, and some have greatness thrust upon them” — and working very much in the same affectionate but critical vein, Fleming gleefully throws two teenybopper girls into the vortex of the Watergate scandal and extends the possibilities of the premise to their most outrageous extremes. Boosted by resourceful comic playing by the young leading women and an appealingly scruffy supporting cast, the film scores seemingly at will.
Pic plunks its innocents down in the middle of a legendary historical event much the way “Some Like It Hot” placed its hapless heroes at the scene of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Ditsy teens Betsy Jobs (Kirsten Dunst) and Arlene Lorenzo (Michelle Williams) are best friends who, while sneaking through the garage of the latter’s apartment in Washington’s Watergate complex one night in 1972 to mail a submission to the “Win a Date With Bobby Sherman” contest, happen upon a certain G. Gordon Liddy (Harry Shearer) and some others up to no good.
The girls don’t think much of it, but when they’re on a school tour of the White House shortly thereafter, they see Liddy again and pick up a CREEP hit list that’s been stuck to his shoe. Liddy scowls that “they know too much,” and has the girls pulled in for interrogation. By accident, they then meet Nixon himself (Dan Hedaya), who attempts to placate the girls by giving them the jobs of official White House dog walkers; he’s disturbed at the moment over the fact that his dog — who Nixon keeps mistakenly calling Checkers, the name of his more famous dog in the ’50s — doesn’t like him. In the process, Betsy and Arlene meet Haldeman, Dean, Kissinger, Rose Mary Woods and the rest of the inner circle.
Thus begins the girls’ unlikely access to the upper echelons of power and to the most closely guarded secrets at the heart of one of America’s most sensational political scandals. As they stroll around the executive mansion and open the wrong door, for example, they happen to see some paper shredders hard at work and cash being prepared for payoffs.
While Betsy enjoys their special status as a groovy sort of lark, Arlene, who lives with her lonely, man-hungry mother (Teri Garr), develops a severe crush on the president, to the extent of dismantling her shrine to Bobby Sherman in favor of one to Dick. In one of the script’s most inspired strokes, her feelings escalate into mad love, an emotion underscored by Barry White music and a romantic fantasy interlude with Dick on a white horse on a beach. Discovering her hero’s private tape recorder, she leaves him a deeply personal message that just happens to last 18 1/2 minutes. They also bake Nixon some dope-laced cookies, which he loves and, in turn, serves to Leonid Brezhnev during a summit conference.
No matter how oblivious they may be to current events, however, the girls begin to turn on Dick when they realize he’s a mean-spirited and prejudiced “potty-mouth.” For Arlene, of course, this represents a romantic betrayal of colossal proportions, and the girls set out to destroy him by calling Bob Woodward at the Washington Post.
Given what easy targets they are, “Dick” wouldn’t amount to much if it made fun of only Nixon and his cronies. But if the film is devastating toward the White House crew, it is even more scathing toward Woodward and Bernstein, and this gives the picture a real charge. Betsy and Arlene take to meeting the constantly bickering reporters (Will Farrell and Bruce McCulloch) in a garage and teasingly doling out snippets of info, with the men scarcely knowing what to make of the chirpy dingbats, but going with their tips anyway.
The crusading journalists are portrayed as petty, preening and infinitely jealous of each other, with Woodward sensitive about being physically touched and Bernstein, who’s extremely short here and outfitted with a dreadful heavy metal–type mop, always preening and trying to impose himself. A rep house will one day sked “Dick” on a double bill with “All the President’s Men,” to great effect.
Fleming directs the script he wrote with Sheryl Longin with a sharpness that stings but, pleasingly, doesn’t eviscerate; the sense of distance from the events helps the laughs go down easily no matter how cutting the humor. Only demerits are a tendency to let some sequences play out a tad long, seemingly to accommodate fuller renditions of period songs, and, more seriously, a depressingly lackluster visual style and color scheme that the actors must fight through, unwittingly, to score their points; the interiors are not lit well, preventing the proceedings from popping off the screen, as they should in a comedy. Tech credits in general for this Toronto-lensed production are a bit threadbare.
Cast, on the other hand, is solid. Dunst and Williams make an appealing duo, the former as an attractive dimwit who gradually experiences the dawning of a meager social awareness, and the latter as a geek who slowly replaces her geeky longings with incipient smarts. Hedaya makes for a terrific Dick, Ferrell and McCulloch have some hilarious moments as America’s most famous newshounds, and Shearer as Liddy and Saul Rubinek as Kissinger hit their targets best among those playing Nixon associates.