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by: Scott Renshaw

This may be a first in my six years as a film critic: I'm going to give the bulk of the credit for a film's success to the casting director. The film is DICK, a political/historical satire with a sporadically amusing script and competent enough direction -- in short, the stuff of fairly average entertainment. If DICK pushes over the edge of average-ness, it's because the cast dives into the material with such gusto that the film finds sparks of inspired comedy. Casting director Pam Dixon Mickelson has stocked DICK with such a wealth of talent that it's fun just watching them stroll into the shot.

The premise is silly high-concept stuff, centered around two high school best friends in Washington D.C. circa 1972 -- simple-minded Arlene Lorenzo (Michelle Williams) and even more simple-minded Betsy Jobs (Kirsten Dunst). Through exaggerated circumstances, the girls become witnesses to the break-in at the Watergate Hotel, though they have no idea what they've seen. Bob Haldeman (Dave Foley), however, isn't so sure, and thinks it would be a good idea to keep an eye on the girls to determine what they know. Thus Arlene and Betsy find themselves "official dog-walkers" for President Nixon (Dan Hedaya) himself, welcomed into the inner circle at the White House. As the Watergate scandal unfolds, the girls find themselves involved in virtually every key event, while generally remaining blissfully unaware that they're making history.

The gag is pretty thin to begin with, and it's not even particularly original. DICK 's insistence on plopping the two teens into every pivotal moment of the second Nixon administration turns it into a distaff FORREST GUMP -- some marijuana-laced brownies lead to fruitful arms-limitation talks with Brezhnev; a recorded message from the girls turns into an 18-1/2 minute gap; a well-placed scolding leads to the resignation of John Dean (Jim Breuer); their encounters with Woodward (Will Ferrell) and Bernstein (Bruce McCulloch) turn them into "Deep Throat." It's all good for a few knowing chuckles, but once you tune into the pattern, you can see virtually every joke coming from several minutes away.

What you can't necessarily see coming is the appeal of the performances. The key players in the administration are all played with zest by a wonderful comic cast -- Hedaya as a tragically unhip Nixon, Harry Shearer as a paranoid G. Gordon Liddy, Breuer as the guilt-stricken John Dean, Saul Rubinek as an insecure Henry Kissinger. More entertaining still are Ferrell and McCulloch as Woodward and Bernstein, playing the two reporters as feuding glory hounds with a relationship somewhere between sibling rivals and closeted lovers. And in the middle of this who's who of sketch comedy alumni, Michelle Williams and Kirsten Dunst have tremendous fun with their ditzy characters. Dunst may be the more accomplished actress of the two, but it's Williams who gets the juicier part of a teen who develops a secret crush on Nixon. There's nothing quite as incongruously funny as Arlene's fantasy of a scowling Dick riding across a beach on a white stallion.

It would have been nice if Andrew Fleming and Sheryl Longin's script had found more scenes to match that one for sheer goofiness value. Too often it gets a bit lazy, opting for yet another historical coulda-been or one of many comic uses of the name "Dick." DICK hits a few dead spots, but whenever it starts to lag it gets a jolt from the energetic cast. Remember the name Pam Dixon Mickelson if you happen to be casting a comedy any time soon. It's nice to have someone who can gather an all-star team for the comedic equivalent of slow-pitch softball.

On the Renshaw scale of 0 to 10 Dick jokes: 6.


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