As soon as Frank Capra stops spinning in his grave, he may find a couple of laughs in Eddie Murphy's election year farce, The Distinguished Gentleman. This noisy burlesque about political shenanigans owes so much to the Capra classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington that Marty Kaplan -- screenwriter, executive producer, and former Mondale speechwriter -- should probably go into hiding before the feisty Sicilian pops out of the ground and smacks him in the teeth. On the other hand, you know what they say about imitation and flattery.
Murphy leaps into his take on the 1939 Jimmy Stewart role with his usual brazen gusto. He's supported by one of Kaplan's few concessions to originality, a Nineties twist on Capra's old moral certainty: While Stewart's Jefferson Smith was a naive idealist nearly destroyed by Washington's corruptions and deceits, Murphy's Thomas Jefferson Johnson is just the opposite -- a smalltime Florida con man who scams his way into Congress when an incumbent with the same name dies suddenly. This freshman cynic can't wait to jump into the deep pockets of every lobbyist on Capitol Hill, to wallow in the perks and the pork barrel. But from minute one we detect a familiar formula in the making: The distinguished gentleman from Florida will develop a conscience; almost inadvertently, this wisecracking hustler will get himself redeemed.
Cheshire-cat grin firmly in place, Murphy puts in one of his slickest, showiest performances: His Thomas Jefferson Johnson mangles campaign slogans from three or four different administrations; he lays on his whole repertoire of accents and dialects, from Martin Luther King to lame bow-tie honky to supercool street brother to Jewish rest-home geezer. He works the double take and the double entendre -- all the schtick he used as a TV sketch artist.
While Murphy learns the ropes (and pulls some chains) in Washington, Kaplan and workaday director Jonathan Lynn (Uncle Vinny, Nuns on the Run) peck away at all the easy targets -- the House banking scandal, Packwood-style sex scandals, bought-and-paid-for legislators. The bad guys include perennial sleazeball Kevin McCarthy, central casting peckerwood Joe Don Baker, and shady Lane Smith, who plays House Majority Leader Dick Dodge as a creepy, funny mixture of Bob Dole and Richard Nixon.
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As usual, the actresses in this Eddie Murphy movie serve as window dressing: Sheryl Lee Ralph is Congressman Johnson's saucy cousin-turned-office-secretary; Victoria Rowell is the pretty lawyer Eddie falls for.
The Distinguished Gentleman is twenty minutes too long and 53 years too late, but Murphy fans will find their man in top form here. Such as it is.
THE DISTINGUISHED GENTLEMAN
Screenplay by Marty Kaplan; directed by Jonathan Lynn; with Eddie Murphy, Lane Smith, Joe Don Baker, Arthur Reinhardt, and Sheryl Lee Ralph.