Sydney Film Festival Review: Elvis & Nixon (USA, 2016)

A journey following little more than what the title suggests, director Liza Johnson takes on her biggest task yet with Elvis & Nixon.

It’s not easy to be trusted with the reigns of puppeteering acting powerhouses Kevin Spacey and Michael Shannon. It’s an even tougher responsibility to direct them embodying two of the Twentieth Century’s most influential figures in President Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley respectively. The premise is simple: Elvis wants to meet Nixon, but Nixon is hesitant. The reasons are not made perfectly clear, but that’s barely the point. The frills, built around a plot that someone in the pitch meeting must’ve imagined simply upon recalling the headline of an article they read some years ago, aren’t complex. What Johnson creates from the bare minimum is entertaining, to say the least, but not without its flaws.

Johnson creates a unique experience launching the audience into the ‘60s from the get-go, dazzling the senses with psychedelic opening credits and crafty production design and costumes that foster a somewhat dulled-down Austin Powers tone with a brown tinge – exactly what we expect the ‘60s must have been like. Centred primarily on Shannon’s Elvis, it’s exciting to watch someone with such presence bring the legend to life, and he does a fine job being a man swooned over by almost every minor character, but this does get tiring. Alex Pettyfer rises from what many had assumed was the grave of his career to bring the best performance he’s ever given for what was probably the character with the most depth. Johnny Knoxville also appears in some scenes that make us question what the point of his character even was, but if it’s a biopic then perhaps his character was more significant than made out to be.

It’s strange to see Spacey in the Oval Office without Claire Underwood by his side, but he too does a fine job portraying Nixon, with advisors Evan Peters and Colin Hanks. Alas, it does feel like an in-between film; a film made in the downtime between each of these actors’ more demanding schedules. In the end, while it’s a fun ride with visuals and music that spurs a sense of nostalgia, the entire film seems lackluster, almost like an orientation that went for 90 minutes then ended with no real ending. The entire purpose was simply for Elvis to meet Nixon and that was about it, and already the premise is a difficult one to visualize without it becoming a near-snoozefest. An entertaining experience for anyone who misses the sideburns, high waisted pants, and some good ol’ rock ‘n roll, but potentially disappointing.

Review Score: TWO STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Elvis & Nixon screened as part of the Sydney Film Festival

 

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