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You know the photo: Richard Nixon, stiff and forcing a smile, shaking hands with a slightly dazed looking Elvis Presley, his collar like two gigantic angel wings and a belt buckle that looks like a championship title.

The questions that photo asks — what? how? huh? why? — are explored in “Elvis and Nixon,” a historical goof-off that knows it’s not dealing with anything of great consequence, but has plenty of fun with its subject anyway.

It’s 1970 and Elvis (Michael Shannon, lightening up as the King), deep into his sitting-at-home-and-shooting-guns-at-his-televisions phase, decides he wants a badge. A real badge, issued by the President, that he will use to go undercover and help save the youth of America from the tyranny of drugs. Now is that so much to ask?

Nixon (Kevin Spacey with a spirited take on Tricky Dick), just two years into his first term as president, couldn’t care less about Elvis. But his officials (including Colin Hanks as Egil Krogh) realize the public relations value of a photo op with him, and convince a begrudging Nixon to sit down with the King.

Director Liza Johnson, working from a script by Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal and actor Cary Elwes, spends plenty of time with Elvis and Nixon individually so we get to know them before their big meeting. And when they finally get together, the meet-up is a howl, with Shannon and Spacey locking into a volley where they feed off each other’s characterizations of historical icons.

Like the 1999 comedy “Dick,” “Elvis and Nixon” plays with history, but never takes itself too seriously. Elvis and Nixon would have gotten a kick out of it.

agraham@detroitnews.com

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‘Elvis and Nixon’

GRADE: B

Rated R for some language

Running time: 100 minutes

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