My first thought upon exiting the theater after seeing Liza Johnson’s Elvis & Nixon last week was, “Hm, ok.” My second was, “I’m not sure why this even exists.” With a scant 86 minute run-time that nonetheless feels padded out with at least one unnecessary sub-plot, the film is the very definition of unsubstantial. Though it deals with two of the most famous and controversial men in American history, and though its concern with the intermingling of tabloid celebrity and politics would seem more timely than ever in The Year of Trump , it barely makes an effort to say anything at all, and its few stabs at depth or profundity are among its weakest moments. This is a movie that asks nothing more of you than a little over an hour of your time, and then lets you get on with life.
I was originally going to argue that this sort of mildly pleasant, easy-to-look at wallpaper entertainment was, in its own way, quietly radical, and that in an age in which studio executives take the critical and commercial failure of a bloated, over-hyped franchise tent-pole as a sign that they need to spend more on bloated, over-hyped franchise tent-poles and less on “homegrown films,” we should cherish movies that aspire to be only as substantial as a gentle spring breeze. But even that would be assigning too much significance to this bit of retro froth, and would risk letting the filmmakers off the hook for wasting a genuinely interesting premise (for this I mostly blame the script writers— Johnson’s direction is admirably lively).
Despite its utter weightlessness, however, the film might still end up living on as a footnote in the on-going reorganization of the entertainment industry, as last year it became the first feature length film to be purchased by Amazon’s in-house studio, thus marking the company’s official foray into the movie business. Almost immediately after, the company began aiming a bit higher, striking deals for films by directors like Spike Lee, Whit Stillman, Woody Allen, and Nicholas Winding Refn. But, in many ways, a film like Elvis & Nixon seems much more at home in the world of streaming video than demanding works by prickly auteurs. This is a movie that you can put on and then safely forget about while you sit on the couch refreshing social media and responding to group chats, occasionally looking up to admire Kevin Spacey’s hammy Nixon impersonation or marvel at whatever it is Michael Shannon is doing, before returning to the more important things in life.