Movie review: ‘The Distinguished Gentleman’

dgToday is our election day 2014 in the United States and today’s results will set the stage for the upcoming two years until our next presidential election. In the spirit of voting, here’s a review of Eddie Murphy in “The Distinguished Gentleman.” Although both a comedy and social commentary on politics in the 1990s, the film remains fresh today because the dirty side of politics doesn’t ever appear to change. Of course, Murphy is much funnier than the comedy that usually plays out in Washington.

‘The Distinguished Gentleman’
(1992; 112 minutes; rated R; directed by Jonthan Lynn and starring Eddie Murphy, Lane Smith and Sheryl Lee Ralph)

GOVERNING FOR DOLLARS … AND CONSCIENCE

(NOTE: I expanded this review with some more trivia; I reorganized the review; and updated links on Election Day 2016.)

I reviewed “Recount” (click here to read it) back in September, so on this election day 2014 I’ll take a look at the hilarious – and somewhat sobering – look at Washington D.C. politics through Eddie Murphy’s comedy in “The Distinguished Gentleman.” You’ll laugh, but you’ll also shake your head since some things just don’t change – like politics and politicians.

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Recount” is a serious film about the massive problems with the 2000 presidential election, while “The Distinguished Gentleman” is a much more light-hearted romp (with stinging political criticism) with Murphy playing “Thomas Jefferson Johnson.” He’s a Florida con man with any number of scams going on when the area’s incumbent member of Congress keels over with a heart attack (while with his female assistant). Murphy realizes they have the same name and he can use that to scam his way to the biggest con game in the country: the U.S. Congress.

Since name recognition is his only asset, Murphy won’t give interviews or show his face to voters or the media (the incumbent was an older white man). Of course he wins (and actually could, given the overall competence of Florida voters) and moves off to Congress. He needs an insider to show him he ropes since he finds quickly that he knows absolutely nothing about how Congress works. He also lands in the welcoming hands of a very generous lobbyist (Murphy is quite happy to have found his mentor) who can straddle any issue with cash for candidates on either side of any debate.

Murphy, who cons his way onto the Hill’s best committee, starts to run afoul of his conscience through the lobby efforts of a woman representing consumer groups as well as her uncle who is a minister as well as a member of Congress. After getting pulled into a debate of public schools being built near power lines and the possibility of health hazards, Murphy battle his own fraudulent instincts and has to go the distance to be the good guy.

Here’s a look at some of the primary cast:

  • Oscar nominated (not for this one) Murphy uses all his considerable tools in this one: he’s funny; he’s a con man; he’s affable; he’s fun; and ultimately he does the right thing. Just like the actor doing the lobbyist, Murphy can all too easily be seen as a member of Congress – although he’d be a major improvement on the dreck there now. The only acting he doesn’t do here is the serious, directed violence he did so well in “Beverly Hills Cop.” Murphy puts on his best con-man smile and patter and he gets good marks for this one. His best work was in “Trading Places” (his second film – click here for my review) and he was also outstanding in “48 Hrs.” with Nick Nolte (his first screen credit). Murphy was nominated for his work in “Dreamgirls.” I liked him best in “Harlem Nights” with Richard Pryor (click here for my review).
  • Golden Globe nominee (not for this one) Lane Smith is the outstanding member of the cast behind Murphy, as he is perfect as “Chairman Dick Dodge,” the oily, scheming and completely crooked veteran member of Congress. He’s perfect to mentor the looking-to-be-corrupted Murphy and initially succeeds and brings him onto his committee. Smith is just as smooth in this role as he was as the prosecutor in “My Cousin Vinny.” Frankly, I liked him best as the worried father-in-law with Pauly Shore in “Son-in-Law” (click here for my review). He navigates through roles so wonderfully that it’s difficult to believe he hasn’t been nominated for an Oscar. He was nominated for a Golden Globe for playing disgraced former President Richard Nixon in TV’s “The Final Days.”

After Murphy and the underrated Smith, the supporting cast is deep and talented.

  • Grant Shaud plays insider assistant “Arthur Reinhardt,” who gets a job with Murphy since he knows all the tricks of the Congressional trade. Shaud is perfect in this role and knows how to be servile but never forgetting that he is smart and also tough. Shaud’s just as good here as he was in his most recognizable role as the manic “Miles Silverberg” on TV’s “Murphy Brown” and he’s also been in “Wall Street” and voicing “Antz.”
  • Veteran actor and Oscar nominee (not for this one) James Garner plays incumbent Congressman “Jeff Johnson” (Murphy as “Thomas Jefferson Johnson” uses his middle name to match Garner’s first name) and is good as the crooked elderly statesman who’s on the take and finally expires in a compromising position. Garner has also been in “Barbarians at the Gate” (click here for my review) and was one of the stars in the large cast of the classic war film “The Great Escape” (click here for my review). He was nominated for “Murphy’s Romance.”
  • Oscar nominee (not for this one) Kevin McCarthy is tremendous as lobbyist “Terry Corrigan” and he probably could have opened his own public relations firm in D.C. after this film was released. McCarthy and Murphy share the movie’s single best scene when as Corrigan fills Murphy in on how there’s money coming in no matter which side of an issue the lawmaker takes, Murphy is mystified and realizes that with cash coming in on both competing sides that nothing can get done. “That’s the beauty of it,” Corrigan chortles. It’s a simply wonderful scene in a simply wonderful effort from Corrigan, who has also been in both the original “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and its remake in 1978 as well as a delightfully nasty turn in “Innerspace.” He got his nomination in 1951 for “Death of a Salesman” with Fredric March.
  • If you want another pitch perfect supporting performance, then look no further than Golden Globe nominee (not for this one) Della Reese as an elevator operator. She’s not credited here, but she does much better than some of the listed supporting actors. Reese confronts Murphy on his first day for not wearing his member of Congress pin and wonders aloud if he’d get frisky with here just like the previous “Congressman Johnson.” It’s a hoot of a scene and wonderful banter between the two. She has worked before with Murphy in “Harlem Nights” and was also on TV’s “Touched by an Angel” and earned her Globe nomination from it.

Murphy’s fellow con artists who fill out his staff in Washington are solid, but no single one stands out. The staff includes Sheryl Lee Ralph as “Miss Loretta Hicks;” Victor Rivers as “Armando” and Sonny Jim Gaines as “Van Dyke.” All three characters get solid camera time and you cannot fault them, but none managed to punch up the role.

Victoria Rowell plays “Celia Kirby,” who represents a public service group and becomes the love interest for Murphy. Rowell gives a seemingly effortless performance and she’s good but not great. Rowell has also been in “Dumb and Dumber,” “Barb Wire” and dozens of TV roles.

The most delightful scene is between Murphy and Doris Grau, who plays “Hattie Rifkin.” Grau represents the “Silver Foxes” senior group and can get Murphy on the ballot as their candidate. A little Yiddish banter between the two is priceless and Murphy has earned himself a supporter. Grau knocks this one out of the park and has also been in “Clue” and “Sleeper.”

The Distinguished Gentleman” was the 34th ranked film at the domestic box office in 1992 with $46.6 million in ticket sales, according to Box Office Mojo. It came in just behind “Single White Female” (33rd with $48 million) and ahead of “Encino Man” (38th at $40.6 million). The year’s No. 1 film was Disney’s animated “Aladdin” with $217.3 million and No. 2 was “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York” with $173.5 million. Other films from 1992 that I’ve reviewed are …

Assorted cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):

  • The Distinguished Gentleman” was Chi McBride’s first movie. Oh, was was only billed as “Chi” for this film. He was in “I, Robot” and even an episode of TV’s “Monk.”
  • Charles S. Dutton plays the ethical lawmaker “Eli Hawkins,” who is also a minister and Kirby’s uncle. He does a good job but there’s a major visual error in his extended scene with Murphy: the duo eat Dungeness crab instead of having the authentic eastern seaboard Atlantic Blue Crab that should be featured in the Maryland-style restaurant. Dutton is one of the few supporting cast members to elevate his role. He has also been in “Gothika” and “A Time to Kill.”
  • Directly from IMDb.com: “Johnson quotes several Presidents of the United States (as well as a few other American historical figures including ‘Live Free or Die’ from Revolutionary War General John Stark) during his run for Congress speech. ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself’ Franklin D. Roosevelt; ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country’ John F. Kennedy; and ‘Read My Lips’ George Bush (George H.W. Bush, #41).”

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2014-2016.
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