The Distinguished Gentleman (1992) / Comedy

MPAA Rated: R for language and sexuality
Running Time: 112 min.

Cast: Eddie Murphy, Lane Smith, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Victoria Rowell, Grant Shaud, Charles S. Dutton, Joe Don Baker, Victor Rivers, Kevin McCarthy, Chi McBride, james Garner
Director: Jonathan Lynn

Screenplay: Marty Kaplan

 

 

The Distinguished Gentleman is one of those rare Eddie Murphy (Beverly Hills Cop, Bowfinger) vehicles that has aged well, produced at a time when his superstardom was on the decline, during his critically dormant period between his last racy R-rated hit, 1988's Coming to America, and his resurgence as a more family friendly comic in 1997's The Nutty Professor.  I dismissed this as a mediocre misfire when I first saw it in the early 90s, but I've changed my mind seeing it anew.  It's one of the stronger films in Eddie's career, and possibly the most overlooked, with solid performances by a very impressive supporting cast, and some skillful writing and direction that keeps the balance well between screwball comedy and political satire quite well.

Eddie Murphy plays Thomas Jefferson Johnson, a con man in Florida who discovers that there are bigger fish to fry (and people to screw over) if he can somehow get into the political arena.  He get his chance when the local congressman, Jeff Johnson (James Garner, Space Cowboys) , dies shortly before he is to campaign for re-election.  Thomas's plan?  To run strictly on name recognition by using the name "Jeff Johnson" and hoping that people are just used to voting for that name and pay little attention.  The ploy works, and soon Thomas discovers that congress is rife with corruption, a veritable playground for a man of his skills.  Through some slick maneuvering, Thomas becomes the protégé of high-roller congressman Dick Dodge (Lane Smith, My Cousin Vinny), chair of the most lucrative committee, Power and Energy.  However, Thomas soon discovers that the games played here have high stakes, and innocent people are affected.  After all the years of screwing people over, could it be that Thomas has developed a conscience?

Given the fiasco that occurred in Florida during the 2000 presidential election, there's a bit of irony in knowing that a film came out eight years prior that claimed that Floridians just don't pay attention when in the voting booth.  Of course, in reality, the two are unrelated, but it does have some resonance in the fact that politics as we have come to know it serves special interests, who can afford to grease the palms of eager politicians, instead of the common working man out there.  Yes, The Distinguished Gentleman is at heart a silly, screwball comedy, but at the same time, the satire employed gives an added layer of intelligence that gives you food for though in the middle of this dessert film.  It also provides fuel to the fire of the fantastic performances by veteran character actors, who are all equally adept at playing comedy and drama with exactly the right tone at the right times.

Of course, the real star here is Eddie himself.  Fans of Murphy should enjoy the comedian showing some diversity, putting all of his voices and personalities on display, while delivering all of the charm he has come to be known for.  It's a fairly pessimistic look into the political arena, not quite as uplifting as its inspiration, Mr. Smith Comes to Washington, but the message still has resonance.  While the ultimate goal is to make you laugh, the crisp writing by Marty Kaplan (Noises Off, Striking Distance) and effervescent direction by Jonathan Lynn (The Fighting Temptations, The Whole Nine Yards) does make the sophomoric shenanigans feel "distinguished" in the end.

© 2004 Vince Leo