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Distinguished Gentleman or: Mr. Murphy Goes To Washington

Aug 21, 2002 (Updated Aug 22, 2002)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:The first half is far funnier than it has any right to be.

Cons:The second half is exactly as leaden as you might expect.

The Bottom Line: For nearly an hour Eddie Murphy's political comedy is fresh and funny before it becomes leaden and predictable in the end.

Election fraud in Florida has never been so funny!

If the people in marketing as Disney were smarter, they'd have found a way to rerelease this 1992 Eddie Murphy comedy in the late fall of 2000 when our country was in the middle of an electoral crisis. For those of you asleep at the wheel for the past two years of our Immaculate Presidency, the election of 2000 was decided by a variety of factors: The first, and least related to the state of Florida, is that Al Gore ran the worst presidential campaign and couldn't even win his home state. But that's not funny. It's pathetic. What was funny was were the events in Florida, where we learned that some Floridians don't know how to vote, while other Floridians were actively prevented from voting by law enforcement in a state that just happened to be governed by the brother of the presumptive president. Actually, that's not funny either. It's sad. But we shouldn't say that Eddie Murphy didn't warn us. Because if there's any lesson to The Distinguished Gentleman, it's that in Florida elections? Anything can happen.

In The Distinguished Gentleman Murphy plays a con artist named Thomas Jefferson Johnson. His current scam involves a "Girls of Many Nations" phone sex line and the high powered people who call in. As the film begins, Murphy and his group of co-cons is bilking a conservative energy executive who especially loves talking dirty with a "Swedish" girl named Inga. The con is being executed at an event where the featured speaker is Congressman Jefferson Davis Johnson (James Garner) and Murphy happens to overhear the Congressman telling a friend about the perks of elective office. Murphy sees it has just the kind of con he could get into.

And he gets his chance when Congressman Johnson dies of a heart attack while having sex with an assistant. There's an election for Johnson's seat and Murphy is realistic enough to know that under normal circumstances, he wouldn't have a chance. But he also realizes that voters are lazy. He drops the "Thomas" from his name and begins campaigning as Jeff Johnson, being careful never to show his face in any advertisements. He even skips the petition part of the election process, getting the endorsement of the Silver Foxes party, a political organization of old Jewish women who recognize the opportunity to get more votes than ever before. With the slogan "Jeff Johnson, a Name You Can Trust" he's swept into office with all of his fellow scam artists as "aides."

In Washington, the new Congressman Johnson at first revels in his newfound ability to scam the American people and special interest groups alike. But Murphy is just a small game con and he becomes mixed up with even bigger cons the legitimate politicians, led by Florida's senior Congressman Dick Dodge (played by veteran heavy Lane Smith) and lobbiest Terry Corrigan (Kevin McCarthy), both of whom are in the pocket of energy CEO Olaf Anderson (Joe Don Baker). Meanwhile, Murphy is beginning to get a conscience, in the form of "good" (read:liberal) lobbiest Celia Kirby (Victoria Rowell) and her uncle Congressman and Reverend Elijah Hawkins (Charles Dutton). Will con artist Murphy become a good politician? Will he find a way to get out from the thumb of the Political Action Committees? Duh.

For its first half, The Distinguished Gentleman is hilarious. Marty Kaplan's screenplay is politically savvy and full of biting (if slightly over-obvious) satire. Thomas Jefferson Johnson's path to Washington is so wildly plausible and after the 2000 elections the fact-is-stranger-than-fiction aspect makes everything even funnier. When Murphy and his fellow cons arrive in Washington in gaudy suits, they're like kids in a candy store as Murphy goes to speak at one breakfast after another, picking up "honorariums" for the "Thomas Jefferson Johnson Foundation." Murphy's interactions with his fellow freshman congressmen (there are no congresswomen in this movie) are also well-handled and for a long time, Kaplan's script offers a smart insider's view of how we all suspect things REALLY work in Washington. And Murphy's transformation is inevitable. If this had been a Billy Wilder movie, Johnson wouldn't have had to change, but Kaplan is working from the Capra template, which requires wholesale personal reevaluation.

It's in the last fifty minutes that Distinguished Gentleman falls apart and loses my recommendation. Down the stretch the creativity just evaporates as the movie begins to turn on a plot-line involving, of all things, power lines near schools. Kaplan never really figures out how he wants to use this issue and the movie loses all focus. The finale would be out of The Sting except that The Sting is a masterpiece, while Distinguished Gentleman is already on autopilot by the time it gets to the big con.

And as the script goes, so goes Jonathan Lynn's direction. Lynn's career has been based around making solid comedies out of solid scripts and horrid movies out of bad scripts. If you want somebody to elevate your material, Lynn isn't the director to go to, but if you've got a good script, he gets the job done. Lynn has had success with Clue, My Cousin Vinny, and The Whole Nine Yards. All smart scripts. He's had bombs with Trial and Error, Greedy, and Sgt. Bilko and it's easy to see why. With Distinguished Gentleman, the pace of the first half is swift and breezy, with Lynn orchestrating scenes with perfect timing. In the second half, things get moralistic and belabored and the pace of the movie grinds to a halt.

It helps that the first half is just made for Eddie Murphy. The Distinguished Gentleman was part of Eddie Murphy's two-pronged 1992 attempt to transform his career. Coming off the twin bombs of Another 48 Hours and Harlem Nights (which Murphy also directed), he took two years off and returned with a new image. Murphy decided that he was going to be the Black Cary Grant (his words, not mine), transforming himself from a comedian to an Everyman romantic-comedy lead. Unfortunately, he built his comeback around Boomerang and Distinguished Gentleman, which both failed dismally, stagnating his career for another three years. But in retrospect, neither of his 1992 films are half as bad as later offerings like Holy Man, Vampire In Brooklyn, or Pluto Nash (based on reviews, at least). Boomerang has its moments (and a young Halle Berry) and Distinguished Gentleman has its first half.

Before he starts becoming lugubrious and sentimental, Murphy's really really funny. In his first scene with the head of the Silver Foxes, he speaks Yiddish for heaven's sake! That's funny! This is wisecracking, laughing, impression-heavy young Eddie Murphy at his finest. With the exception of Bofinger he hasn't been this funny since. None of his characterizations here are original. You see more than a few hints of his Saturday Night Live characters and heavy doses of Billy Ray Valentine from Trading Places. But I'm not judging this on originality at this point. Only on "funny." But (are you detecting a trend here?), he stops being funny in the second half. He's hampered by an absence of romantic chemistry with Rowell, whose lobbyist character is merely preachy and throws a wet blanket over all of her scenes. Replace Rowell with either of Murphy's Boomerang co-stars (Berry or Robin Givens) and I bet it instantly becomes a better movie.

The supporting roles are all ably filled. All of the evil old white guys Smith, Baker, and McCarthy basically play the same kind of out-of-touch honkeys regularly and so they know the drill. Grant Shaud (Miles Silverberg on Murphy Brown) is also in familiar territory as an obsequious and double-dealing assistant. His stammering and pratfalls are funny when the movie's funny, but he basically disappears in the second half, which is probably to his credit. Dutton provides his typical fire and enthusiasm, though he, like Rowell, is partially responsible for the humor-less direction the movie takes. Sheryl Lee Ralph, Chi McBride, and Victor Rivers are amusing as Murphy's cronies.

With a fine Randy Edelma and Gabriel Beristain's nice Washington and Miami photography, The Distinguished Gentleman doesn't feel as instantly dated as Boomerang's depiction of early 1990s Buppy culture. [Anybody seen Boomerang lately? It's like a relic. The fashion, music, and hairstyles should be put in a time capsule.] In fact, The Distinguished Gentleman is funnier now because of the election scandal of 2000. Or at least its first half is funnier, which makes its second half even more disappointing. The ending of Distinguished Gentleman seemed to be begging for a sequel, but how was Murphy to know that the movie would fail and that real life would provide its own installment?

The Distinguished Gentleman is worth a look if you're a fan of political comedy or of Mr. Murphy, but I'm still not able to recommend it.

Recommend this product? No

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