You Don't Know "Dick"

One from the vaults: A cheeky political comedy to cure the January blues

You Don't Know "Dick"
Michelle Williams and Kirsten Dunst in “Dick”

Here we are in the second week of January, and just about everyone I know is climbing the walls. The holidays are over and two to three months of frigid, sunless winter stretch before us. It’s too cold to huddle outside and too viral to socialize inside and forget about flying someplace warmer. For those of us privileged to work from home, the calendar has devolved into an endless succession of what my wife calls “Blursdays,” where the borders between workday and weekend are in danger of melting away entirely. And there’s only so many games of Wordle you can play.

We need a break. We need a laugh. We need comedy.

Accordingly, today and on random days of my choosing over the next few months, I’ll be pulling some of my favorite film comedies out of the vault for recommendation. Old or new, American or foreign – it doesn’t matter. The only proviso is that they lighten the load, however briefly. Anyway, I’ve been looking for an excuse to write about “Dick,” because compared to this era of political Armageddon, nothing seems as carefree and frolicsome as the Nixon administration.

Released in 1999 and available for a $4 rental on Apple TV and Amazon, this enjoyably silly alterna-history satire is too young to be considered a classic and too old to have lingered in the pop-culture memory banks. It came, it got good reviews, and it disappeared over two decades ago, but every time I suggest it to someone, they come back glowing.

Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams in “Dick”

Plus, it’s a kick to see the young Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams flex their comedic muscles. They play Betsy and Arlene, two 15-year-old besties in Washington, D.C., in 1972. Betsy lives with her family in Georgetown and Arlene with her widowed mother in an apartment in the Watergate complex. You can see where this is going: The two sneak out on the night of June 17 to mail a fan letter to Bobby Sherman and tape the door to the parking garage open, in so doing causing the Watergate burglars to be discovered by police. So, yeah, that was them.

It gets better: During a school trip to the White House, the two are recognized by G. Gordon Liddy (Harry Shearer), who, fearing that they must know something, arranges for them to meet President Nixon (a jowly, growly Dan Hedaya), who hires Betsy and Arlene as official White House dog walkers. (The dog, an Irish Setter, is named Checkers but is clearly King Timahoe.) It’s around this time that Arlene develops a schoolgirl crush on the 37th President, who replaces Sherman and David Cassidy on her bedroom walls and causes her to leave an 18 1/2-minute message of undying devotion on a tape recorder she finds in the Oval Office. So, yeah, that was them, too.

Kirsten Dunst, Michelle Williams, and Dan Hedaya in “Dick”

She and Betsy are disillusioned soon enough, and the comedy of “Dick” lies in watching almost every familiar Watergate twist and trope tied back to two teenage girls with the common sense of a pair of yams. (I’m quoting Dave Foley’s H. R. “Bob” Haldeman here.) You thought Deep Throat was FBI associate director Mark Felt? Think again. You think Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev just came up with détente on a whim? Thank Betsy’s “special” cookies, courtesy of her pothead brother (Devon Gummersall).

“Dick” was directed by Andrew Fleming from a screenplay he wrote with Sheryl Longin — former White House counsel John Dean served as script advisor! — and it is weightless, dumb, very clever, and quite sweet. The cast is full of character actors and comedians wholly in the spirit of the thing: Will Ferrell and Bruce McCulloch as a petty, ill-tempered Woodward and Bernstein, Saul Rubinek as Henry Kissinger, Ana Gasteyer as Rose Mary Woods, and Teri Garr (who else?) as Arlene’s woebegone mother. Look fast and there’s a very young Ryan Reynolds as “Chip.” But this is Dunst’s and Williams’ movie, and they are delightful. Dunst, then 17, had played a child bloodsucker in “Interview with the Vampire” (1991) and would achieve major stardom with Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” (2002); between “Dick” and her spectral turn as the most rebellious of the Lisbon sisters in “The Virgin Suicides,” 1999 was a demonstration of the breadth of her talents.

Williams, 19, was in year two of a six-season run in “Dawson’s Creek,” the WB teen drama that gained her stardom but not critical notice. That would come in the mid-2000s with “Brokeback Mountain” (2005), “Wendy and Lucy” (2008), “Blue Valentine” (2010), and other films that established her as one of the most intuitive and risk-taking actresses of her generation. Her perfectly calibrated comic performance as Arlene – bespectacled, earnest, heartsore Arlene – now looks like a grand promise of things to come. “Dick” is a fun movie, nothing more and nothing less, but it’s made by a bunch of pros having the time of their lives. And it serves as a reminder that Michelle Williams should really do more comedy.

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