If The West Wing’s Jed Bartlet was the best president America never had then maybe Dave Kovic was the second best – except that, briefly, and with hardly anybody knowing, Dave did become president.
Played by Kevin Kline, Dave is an easygoing Joe Soap, who runs a temp agency and by a remarkable coincidence (not that remarkable really since both roles are played by Kline) looks exactly like America’s unpleasant, philandering president Bill Mitchell, for whom, secretly, he sometimes stands in when all he has to do is wave at crowds or kiss babies.
Near the end of his first term Mitchell suffers a major stroke while following an established White House tradition of having sex with a female aide and lies in a coma. (And if you’re going to have a stroke, I suppose that’s as good a way as any.)
Now the plot thickens. The sinister Chief of Staff (Frank Langella) decides to keep his boss’s true condition a secret because, for devious reasons, he doesn’t wish amiable vice president Ben Kingsley to take over.
Instead he calls in the apparently malleable Dave to impersonate Mitchell full time, indeed to replace him. Dave is admittedly uneasy about this but he’s a bit naive and easily persuaded that he’s acting in the nation’s best interests.
There are, however, problems, notably in the shape of Mitchell’s wife (Sigourney Weaver). Will she be taken in by the impostor? Well, happily, yes because she hates and despises her womanising husband and barely talks to him anyway.
“Why can’t you die from a stroke like everybody else?” she asks an astonished Dave when she first encounters him. You can probably work out for yourselves the general drift of how Ivan Reitman’s charming and Capraesque romantic comedy develops.
How, for instance, Weaver grows suspicious when her husband turns out to be a much nicer man than the one she had loathed for so long. But it’s by no means entirely predictable and often confounds our expectations.
Plus there are some joyous moments when Dave, growing in self-confidence, ignores Langella’s orders and starts making speeches of his own. There’s one in particular when he fulfils what must be every voter’s dream by attacking practices beloved by politicians everywhere – excessive bureaucracy and corruption.
With another presidential election looming up I imagine today’s American voters might be yearning to hear Mitt or Newt (what bizarre names for politicians, or come to that anybody, by the way) or Barack follow Dave’s lead. It’s all very lightweight of course but Reitman’s direction is bright and lively and the script by Gary Ross satirical and witty, and it’s always a pleasure to watch a group of intelligent actors, which these are, getting their teeth into well-developed characters.
Dave is on TCM tonight at 6:55pm