18 ½

From Robert Altman's Secret Honor to Ron Howard's Frost/Nixon, filmmakers have long been drawn to using Richard Nixon as a subject in films. Director Dan Mirvish has come up with the quirkiest use of the disgraced former president since 1999's Dick. Nixon is never seen in 18½, although we do hear his voice (provided by the great Bruce Campell) talking to H.R. Haldeman (Jon Cryer). That's because the movie imagines a scenario in which the infamous 18½ minutes of missing Watergate audio have not only been discovered, but also get listened to.

Connie (Willa Fitzgerald) is a White House transcriber. Through a total fluke, one of the tapes she's given to transcribe ends up containing audio of Nixon, Haldeman, and Alexander Haig (Ted Raimi) listening to the section of the tape they will eventually erase. (It's basically a recording of a recording.) She meets with reporter Paul Marrow (John Magaro) in a Maryland diner, and they decide to hole up at a low-rent motel, figuring they'll have some privacy to listen to it. Unfortunately, his reel-to-reel tape player is broken. In their quest to find a new one, the two encounter a series of wacky individuals, including a one-eyed motel manager (Richard Kind), a hippie revolutionary (Sullivan Jones) with a grudge against Wonder bread, and an amorous couple named Samuel and Lena (Vondie Curtis Hall and Catherine Curtain) staying in a neighboring cottage.

The central joke in 18½ is that Connie and Paul possess a tape that would blow the roof off American politics, yet they have to go through a rigmarole to hear it. That's a funny premise, and the oddballs the two deal with offer sly insight into how various groups of people were feeling during that post-Watergate era. The paranoia and suspicion are especially prevalent in the scenes with the revolutionary and his cohorts. Mirvish unfolds his story in Robert Altman-esque style, with the camera gliding past the characters as their dialogue overlaps, creating a sense of comedic chaos. Rarely has the concept of a simple task becoming needlessly difficult been executed as wittily as it is here.

Good performances make the speculative fiction work. Fitzgerald is excellent as the woman who realizes her life will be made miserable if she's ever associated with the tape. So is Magaro, nicely capturing Paul's internal desire to grab the brass ring that can turn an ordinary reporter into a legend. They largely play it straight, with the supporting actors turning up the comedy. Kind is especially hilarious as the motel manager, while Hall and Curtain bring a delightfully over-the-top quality to the other couple – people who fancy themselves sophisticates, even as they stay in a dumpy location.

The middle section of 18½ slows down slightly with a long dinner party between Connie/Paul and Samuel/Lena, but the pace rebounds during the finale, a brilliantly-staged explosion of mayhem as the tape's contents are finally revealed amid two very unexpected occurrences. (It's another shrewd joke that Connie and Paul can't totally pay attention when they finally have a chance to hear the recording.) Mirvish and writer Daniel Moya have fun imagining what Nixon, Haldeman, and Haig might have wanted erased. You almost need to see the last fifteen minutes a second time – with your eyes closed – just to savor all the little details.

That, really, is the core pleasure of the film. Nixon's exploits were serious and had profound repercussions for our country. Crafting a quirky comedy around them helps to point out the foolishness of him and his cohorts thinking they could actually get away with their scheme. 18½ is a very funny piece of “What if?” storytelling.

out of four

18½ is rated PG-13 for some strong violence, language, and suggestive material. The running time is 1 hour and 28 minutes.