A silly scene of distraction and action during the listening of a most bombastic bombshell of a tape recording makes all the difference in the world. Calling it whistleblowing slapstick, Dan Mirvish’s 18 1/2 - in reference to the runtime of the gap in the infamous private recordings of President Nixon’s secret meetings - is a cute and anxious picture of an era steeped in uncertainty and ripe for goofballs. This isn’t to suggest that the film is completely a comedy, but it does, for lack of a better phrase, take the piss out of some high profile shameful behavior, and the hysteria bred around it.
Anchored by a diverse cast of independent players, from Vondie Curtis Hall and Catherine Curtin to Richard Kind and the voice of Bruce Cambell (as Nixon) to a whip-smart screenplay that’s strong with the force of farce, 18 1/2 is quite a gem. Following the discovery of the gap tape within a tape, a tense mystery and dangerous escapade of fault and folly unfold between a sad but eager journalist and an idealistic transcriptionist, as they try, try, and try to find a damn audio player at a lodge for Honeymooners and lovers. Of course, they’re surrounded by colorful types, who are relentless in their kind but inconvenient attempts at matchmaking the pair together.
Indeed, the film shifts gears easily, without ever sacrificing tone. A light of melodramatics and theatricality does imbue each frame, giving off an attitude of romantic high-wire walking throughout, working between genre and could-be love or, at least, one-night stand-ing. Hearing Nixon spill the beans on increasingly terrifying schemes and plots for almost twenty minutes does get one worked up and frisky…
Should there be any fault in 18 1/2, it would be found in its ambition and indulgence. It’s never overwhelming or intolerable, but noticeable are wicked moments of almost forced bizarreness - almost - that stick out loudly and proudly. Do you movie, but tread lightly. A dinner sequence in the middle of the film drags things down a bit, despite some good and genuine tension, mystery, and growth. This is where the wonderful performances come into play, making an overly extended set-piece work somewhat in tricks and treats. There are other scenes of strange red-herring playing that don’t add up to much, but again the actors are gung ho.
Gorgeous cinematography and movement, attributed to the contributions of the great independent spirit Elle Schneider (who can be briefly spotted as a beach hippie) absolutely sweep the climax off of its feet, elevating the activity - which ranges from voyeuristic to fight capture - to sheer brilliance. Flat out impressive and affecting, bringing my attention from average to glued.
Mostly sweet, always moving, and exceptional in talent across the board, 18 1/2 is less of a surprise and more of an of course. Mirvish and company brought out their best with the kind of creativity that causes such blush. Nixon sucked, but was at least worth a ribbing and more. 18 1/2 goes past being funny and settles on being… itself, very confidently, and thankfully not confidentially. Audiences ought to see in it what I saw. 4/5