Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Distinguished Gentleman - 1992

"The Distinguished Gentleman" - 1992
Dir. by Jonathan Lynn - 1 hr. 52 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

I guess you could call "The Distinguished Gentleman" Eddie Murphy's "Fletch."  You've got the same set-up (albeit on the wrong side of the law) - a fast-talking con-man who does impressions (largely voice impressions here) and stumbles into something slightly beyond their grasp.  In this case, it's sort of an attack on Washington D.C., and it actually holds up pretty well.

Thomas (Eddie Murphy) is a con-man running a scam based on filching credit card numbers from a 1-900 number he runs, and then blackmailing the people who have called in.  In the course of this scam, he ends up undercover (sort of) as a waiter at a fundraiser for Florida Senator Jeff Johnson (James Garner), and overhears one of the funders bragging about what a sweet deal being a Senator is.  After one of those "I'm in the wrong racket" moments, Thomas forgets about it until Senator Johnson dies right before re-election (in the manner that pretty much every guy wishes he could go it in).  Thomas puts two and two together, does a little research, and sets his eyes on becoming a Senator.  Going from con-man to elected official might seem like an extraordinary leap, except that Thomas' full name is Thomas Jefferson Johnson, and Florida is a state accustomed to voting on auto-pilot, so "Jeff Johnson" wins based only on name recognition.

This all happens in about the first half hour, so the bulk of the film is Eddie Murphy's Washington Adventure. "The Distinguished Gentleman" has some valid points to make, but none of that would matter if it wasn't also pretty funny.  This isn't exactly prime-era Murphy, but it's not far off.  And him playing an essentially amoral character is a good fit for both him and the story; at this point in America, good luck finding anyone whose beliefs aren't set in stone, but it's entirely believable that Murphy's character not only prioritizes money over all, but that he simply hasn't given much thought to anything beyond the acquisition of money.  Thomas isn't exactly a Robin Hood, but his pre-D.C. grifts are portrayed at being at the expense of the already-wealthy, for whom a few thousand dollars and a Rolex are a drop in the bucket.  The idea of going after bigger money with impunity sounds great, but Murphy's character learn that legal big money comes at the expense of people for whom this is not a drop in the bucket.

A lot of the humor comes from an acknowledged con-man being blown away at the brazenness of the D.C. insiders, whom Thomas also regards as con-men.  He's immediately taken under the wing of Dick Dodge, another very influential (and crooked) politician, and money is constantly being thrown at him.  There's a nice flip to the usual fish-out-of-water story, in that Thomas isn't really some doe-eyed innocent, and even someone who takes advantage of people for a living is appalled at the way that these politicians are taking advantage of their situation.  That's a timeless message, and is a sticking point about the political process, that people who are supposed to be public servants spend their time chasing money and currying favors instead of worrying about the consequences of their actions.  This is illustrated in the story by three characters: there is the morally outraged Senator/preacher, Elijah Hawkins (Charles S. Dutton), and a mother who's daughter has come down with a wicked case of cancer, ostensibly from her school being situated under a clump of power lines.  Thomas is no saint, but stealing is only fun and games until some little girl has to wear a Florida Marlins with a wig sewn into it.

I guess people will always bitch about politicans, so this movie is based on a subject that is always relevant.  "The Distinguished Gentleman" is bolstered by a pretty good Eddie Murphy performance, plus a bunch of awesome character actors to fill out the cast.  You've got your Lane Smiths, your Joe Don Bakers, your Charles S. Duttons - a bunch of people who are good at what they do and are familiar faces.  Maybe it's just the evolution of things, but the only thing that felt out of place in the story is the notion that the general public doesn't really pay attention to politics (it's become a new national sport on the level of football, so it seems), but it's both comforting and discomforting to know that there's always been crooked politicians, and there probably always will be.  Overall, this movie has held up well, and is still funny, even against the test of time.

3 / 5 - TV

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