A Presidential Role Model -- Kevin Kline, Screenplay Make `Dave' Believable

XXXX "Dave," with Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, Frank Langella and Ben Kingsley. Directed by Ivan Reitman, from a screenplay by Gary Ross. Broadway Market, Crossroads, Everett 9, Factoria, Grand Cinemas Alderwood, Kirkland Parkplace, Metro, Oak Tree, Parkway Plaza, Seatac North. "PG-13" - Parental guidance suggested because of mild profanity, mature humor. ------------------------------------------------------------------- It's impossible to say whether "Dave" will play as wonderfully over the decades as it does right now, but this smooth-as-silk comedy could not be more timely, or connect more hopefully with our current national consciousness. It is the sweetly inspirational flip side to "Bob Roberts," last year's acclaimed political satire that proved too cynical for a mainstream audience.

One could argue that the advantages of "Dave" lie in director Ivan Reitman's ("Ghostbusters," "Twins" and "Kindergarten Cop") clout in Hollywood. But the truth can be found in the sharp, savvy fantasy dreamed up by screenwriter Gary Ross, who worked similar magic in his co-writing of "Big." The biting hipness of "Bob Roberts" was no less valid, but "Dave" will owe its instant popularity to the fact that it champions our loftiest ideals for government leadership, rather than confirm and perpetuate our worst fears of its corruption.

With echoes of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," the benevolent spirit of Frank Capra hovers over "Dave" with smiling approval. It's both a valentine to President Clinton and a warning to Do The Right Thing, providing a presidential role model in Dave Kovic (Kevin Kline), an amiable everyman who runs a Baltimore temporary agency and just happens to be a dead ringer for the real chief executive (also Kline), a corrupted leader who has grown estranged from his first lady (Sigourney Weaver) and from the voting public he no longer cares about.

Not long after Dave has been hired as the president's double, acting as public decoy while the president trysts with his secretary, the real president suffers a stroke (described in media double talk as "a minor circulatory problem of the head") and is placed on permanent life support.

Rather than reveal the truth, the White House chief of staff (Frank Langella in an Oscar-worthy performance) installs Dave as a puppet leader while he pulls the strings of power. But Dave is just smart enough to foil the scheme. He is president, after all, and he can do as he pleases, vetoing regressive proposals, hiring his accountant buddy (Charles Grodin) to balance budgets favoring the disadvantaged, sending his popularity polls skyrocketing.

Ross and Reitman are meticulous in their efforts to make this scenario believable, with exact re-creations of the White House, press conferences and cameos by countless pundits and celebrities appearing as themselves (such as "JFK" director Oliver Stone describing his Dave conspiracy theory on "Larry King Live"). And because they can't expect the first lady to fall for the ruse forever, Weaver's role is integrated into Dave's dilemma with clockwork precision, giving her - and the entire country - a kind of sweet second honeymoon.

Audience disbelief is suspended on a delicate thread; the film's Republican-to-Democrat trajectory is obvious, but no political parties are specified, and you sense Ross painting himself into a narrative corner. But on the strength of Kline's infectiously upbeat performance, "Dave" resolves its crises with elegant aplomb, reflecting recent history in a scandal involving an impeccably decent man (Ben Kingsley) who just might be a worthy successor to the Oval Office of our dreams.