FILM / Mr Kline goes to Washington

WOULD YOU take a bullet for the leader of the free world? That is what Secret Service men in Hollywood movies are asking themselves right now, as the fields of the republic grow darker and the White House loses its sheen. Clint Eastwood's agent Frank Horrigan gave the positive, patriotic response in In the Line of Fire, but, then, he was a relic of the Kennedy era, with a debt to pay off for the dimming of its one brief shining moment. The agent who is asked the question in Ivan Reitman's political comedy Dave (12), a glum black officer with more than the regulation-issue wariness, has to ponder it. He is asking not what he can do for his country, but whether his country is done for.

Dave takes this apathy and indulges its fondest fantasy. What if, for once, someone decent got into office? The joke of the film is to give both dream and reality the same face - the face of Kevin Kline. Kline plays the hard, unpopular incumbent, President Bill Mitchell. He also plays Bill's look-alike, Dave Kovic, who's hired by the Secret Service to cover for the President (absent philandering) on a wave-and-smile engagement. When the President's extra-

curricular exertions result in a stroke, Dave is set up as surrogate by the puppet-master White House Chief of Staff (Frank Langella). Langella appeals to Dave's easy-going patriotism: 'The country is sick, and you're going to get it to the hospital.' Dave takes his ambulance duties more seriously than the scheming Langella bargains for.

Kline plays both roles perfectly, making you believe that he is two different men. Mitchell, with his patrician vanity, narrow gaze and jerky movements, has more than a trace of George Bush, rounding off speeches with a smirking punch of the air. Dave Kovic seems to have Mitchell's body with a looser set of limbs. We first see him cycling to his Georgetown office, where he runs an employment agency. In jacket and cords, with hair a shade longer than the presidential crimp, he has a relaxed, undergraduate air. Pressed into service, he lacks Mitchell's ramrod arrogance. He does everything, even picking up a pen, with a good-natured flourish. Deferential, almost goofy, he meets the crowd, and shouts out on a whim of joyous fellow-feeling: 'God bless you] God bless America]' It chills the Secret Service but warms our hearts.

Dave gladdens the people too, surging in popularity. The film deftly recreates the media circus - chat shows, news bulletins, discussion programmes - by using the real thing. Twenty- nine characters are credited as played by 'Himself' or 'Herself'. But whereas real people often fit like square pegs in the rounded whole of a movie world (remember Graham Hill limply congratulating James Garner in Grand Prix?), here they're witty parodies of themselves, hand- on-heart but tongue-in-cheek. Oliver Stone is seen weaving a conspiracy theory about there being a substitute President to a sceptical chat-show host.

The only other person to have doubts is the First Lady (Sigourney Weaver) who reckons this isn't the mean bastard she's slept apart from (useful for the plot) for several years, with whom she barely speaks. Weaver, as in Working Girl, makes high comedy out of haughty bitchiness, and earns a sweeter reward. Frank Langella, as the crooked Chief of Staff, is also a comic gem, a near-psychotic, deluded by his own deceit into thinking he has a right to run the country. He adds spice to a film with more smiles than guffaws.

Dave's lightness is both its appeal and limitation. Taking a familar plot - the innocent outsider thrust into power - it serves a comic souffle rather than a serious meal. Langella is a comic-book figure beside Claude Rains's bent senator in Mr Smith Goes to Washington, driven to suicide by his stricken conscience. Nor does Dave have the same insight into democracy's rot as Being There, which predicted in the lionisation of Peter Sellers' slow-witted gardener the rise of Ronald Reagan and his homilies. Dave exploits the present Zeitgeist, pandering to distrust of politicians, believing personalities are more important than policies, and not seeing that what's wrong is in the world as well as in Washington. It's opportunistic, superficial, and great fun.

Mike Leigh's new comedy, Naked (18), is at the other end of the spectrum - pitchy black, with the only light cast by the coruscating wit of its misanthrope hero, Johnny (David Thewlis). Thewlis's bulbous nose and straggly beard make him a slimline Depardieu, and he offers a Mancunian monster to match any of Gerard's Gallic brutes: a man past caring, preying on loneliness, especially women's, seducing and brutalising them. His conquests fall in the murky grey area where inchoate yearning is met by brute force, but they feel like rape: he grasps partners by the hair, thrusting their heads in time to his pumping loins. Down in London, he looks up an old girlfriend (Lesley Sharp), knocks up her flatmate (Katrin Cartlidge), and wanders the night, provoking and abusing everyone he meets.

As if one fiend weren't enough, there's another, in yuppie misogynist Jeremy (Greg Cruttwell), though he's hardly past the drawing board - a fast car, a foul mouth and not much else. What's up in Leighland? It was always bleak, but this is hell, isn't it? Well, maybe. Mike seems to have gone Manichean, believing with Johnny that 'God exists in order to be fucked up by evil'. Trailing his overcoat through the night, Johnny comes over as a prince of darkness, bowing his head on smoky wasteland, to look like Lucifer grieving for the fallen world.

His wit is diabolic, tearing entertaining strips off all-comers, notably a twitchy young Scots thug. (Scot: 'Are you taking the piss?' Johnny: 'You're fuckin' givin' it away.') The city he wanders through is soulless, and almost peopleless - we see nobody apart from the folk he bumps into. These people are as shadows next to Johnny's garish vividness. Once Johnny's babble of half-baked ideas and hand- me-down theology begins to pall, we're bogged down in the slough of despond, with only the banality of evil for company.

The last two films needn't detain us as long as they do their characters in jail. The Real McCoy (12) begins with Kim Basinger ending a six-year stretch for bank robbery. She's kept her figure, as everyone keeps telling her, but not much else: her husband has deserted and her son has been kidnapped by master criminal Terence Stamp, the cause of her incarceration. Rather than allow the boy a minute's more exposure to Stamp's phoney Southern accent and camp baddie routine, she agrees to one more heist, with love interest Val Kilmer and the rest of the gang. Will she show her true colours? It's all too mechanical for us much to care.

Daniel (Thierry Fortineau), the hero of La Fille de l'Air (15), is serving a longer term, with no prospect of release - until his wife (a slightly piano Beatrice Dalle) gains a helicopter pilot's licence, and plots to fly him out of prison. This movie, a true story, is one astonishing scene in search of a film. Everything before the escape is merely a preparation - and a curiously lacklustre one. We're not given much sense of the couple's lives before his offence, except that most of his relatives seem to be underworld figures. We feel that we're being shielded from his crime, lest our sympathies be lost. Still, the final scene, as Dalle flies low over Paris and picks up her man from the prison roof - inmates clapping, warders flapping - is worth the price of admission alone.

Cinema times: Review, page 106.

(Photograph omitted)