Decline and fall again

History's least funny era makes an amusing comeback in Dick

Do you know why the burglars at the Watergate Apartments failed that fateful night in 1972, causing their own arrest and, ultimately, the resignation of Richard Nixon? Or why the famous electrical tape discovered by the security guard, alerting him of the presence of burglars in the offices of the Democratic National Committee, was placed in the door not by the so-called plumbers, as history records, but by a pair of goofy teenage girls who put it there to keep from being locked out? (They sneaked out to mail their entry in a Win-a-Date contest with the love of their lives -- teen heartthrob Bobby Sherman.)

As a teen comedy based on Watergate, Dick has a degree of difficulty equal to that of executing a triple somersault in full pack and weapon. Most people in the target audience weren't born until some 10 to 15 years after the Watergate break-ins and wouldn't be able to tell the difference between Bob Haldeman and Rosemary Woods if their lives depended on it. But perhaps the filmmakers should be praised for their courage in attempting something so difficult and risky -- even if they didn't entirely pull it off. Directed by Andrew Fleming (The Craft) from a script he wrote with Sheryl Longin, this Dick is a deftly funny history of history's least funny era.

Its twin peaks of incandescent, empty-headed insanity are Kirsten Dunst as Betsy Jobs and Michelle Williams as Arlene Lorenzo, two girls living in the Washington area who between them can whip up about five-eighths of a thought but who stumble -- or trip, giggling -- right into the trembling lap of Watergate. History sometimes makes strange choices, as it certainly does when Betsy and Arlene tumble into a situation between Richard Nixon (played to creepy perfection by Dan Hedaya) and his dog, Checkers.

All the president's morons: Betsy and Arlene are in love with Dick, ha ha ha. Ha. Hmm.
All the president's morons: Betsy and Arlene are in love with Dick, ha ha ha. Ha. Hmm.

We should back up to make note of the fact that Betsy (who, as Dunst plays her, makes squeaky-clean seem boundlessly sexy) and Arlene love only two things in the world: Bobby Sherman and dogs. The thought of either drives them to giggle at a pitch perhaps only dogs can hear, even as they cast little aspersions and crack hilarious wisecracks beneath their breath, proving that they are anything but dumb. Nixon's evil secret is that he hates dogs, or rather that dogs hate him -- Checkers included. For the girls to take the mutt off his hands would be one more odious chore off his schedule.

To step back even further: The original blunder that bumps the girls out of their own orbits and into history was committed by Henry Kissinger (excellently portrayed by Saul Rubinek), who ran into the girls while they were taking a public tour of the White House. The national security advisor is played as a man who wants desperately for somebody to like him and to accept his plan for getting out of Vietnam. He invites the girls into the Oval Office to meet the president as a way of flirting with them. But Kissinger's amorous design is thwarted when Nixon shoos Henry away, keeping the girls for himself. From the instant they meet Checkers, it's clear that a love affair is born, an affair that is consummated when Nixon appoints them to the position of official White House dog walkers.

Serendipity is not the president's friend, however; whenever he is on the verge of stepping over the legal line, Betsy and Arlene are there, bursting through the door to witness the event -- whether it's the shredding of documents or G. Gordon Liddy (played as a raving paranoid by Harry Shearer) clumping by with the list of contributors to the president's secret slush-fund stuck to his shoe. (These days, G. Gordon Liddy is, sadly, one of Watergate's best-known personalities.)

At first, Nixon tries to score generational points with the girls, proudly announcing that "he has a knack with the young people." And strangely enough, for a time, Arlene forgets about Bobby Sherman and falls head over heels for Dick, at one point leaving an 18-and-a-half-minute proclamation of love for him on his secret tape recorder, hidden in his secretary's desk. But the affair is short-lived, ending abruptly when Arlene and Betsy overhear, on the same tape machine, their president screaming terrible racist slurs and other morally repugnant remarks and even giving Checkers a whack. The girls promise each other to do whatever they can to see that this depraved infidel -- this "Dick" -- is removed from office.

One of the movie's nicer touches comes when Betsy and Arlene's decision to cooperate with Woodward and Bernstein (a brilliant Will Ferrell and Bruce McCulloch), a.k.a. "muckraking bastards from the Washington Post," occurs at the same time that Arlene's stoner brother is busted by his parents for seeing Deep Throat, providing at last the true identity of the Post reporters' legendary source and how they came up with his inscrutable name. Ferrell and McCulloch play the famous journalists as totally sleazy and consumed with suspicions, mostly of each other.

It's the girls, though, who provide the engine -- and the effervescence -- for the movie. It's a riot to watch these sublime creatures wiggle and squeal their way through the plot. Their brains haven't developed nearly as well as their bodies, but as the movie progresses, they slowly begin to wise up about the clandestine activities inside the White House and around the country as well. By the end of the picture, they have managed to cause the decline and fall of Nixon mostly by happenstance, but not without really knowing what's going on or what he represented. For the girls to remain clueless throughout would rob us of our deepest satisfaction in the ironies the movie has set up, and the biggest laughs.

 
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