Movie review: ‘My Fellow Americans’

mIn re-watching “My Fellow Americans” recently on cable, I again had come across a film that isn’t the sum of its parts. It has good acting – hard to miss with Jack Lemmon and James Garner, albeit in their twilight – and it has a good story and it is handled somewhat well by its director. But, like several other films I’ve written the same thing about (take “The Big Fix” with Richard Dreyfuss – click here for my review), “My Fellow Americans” just doesn’t grade out as prime for moviegoers. You’ll enjoy it; it’s very funny at times; and its plot is better than you might have believed going in, but it’s all doesn’t come together. Still, it’s watchable – especially with a neat small part by the legendary Lauren Bacall – and you’ll find it since it is currently making a circuit on the cable movie grid.

‘My Fellow Americans’
(1996; 101 minutes; rated PG; directed by Peter Segal and starring Jack Lemmon, James Garner and Dan Akyroyd)

LEMMON, GARNER WORK WELL TOGETHER

Although they are the focus of just about the entirety of “My Fellow Americans” there still should have been more of Jack Lemmon and James Garner kibitzing as a pair of former U.S. presidents and mortal enemies. They do really good work together and the two actors appear to elevate each’s game here and a bit more of their work could have easily replaced some of the time spent on fleshing out details of the plot that the two join forces to foil.

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The interplay between the two appears at a distance to be cashing in on the 1993 effort “Grumpy Old Men” in which Lemmon and Walter Matthau did about the same thing (although with much more success both at the box office and in the acting) and that’s very true – “My Fellow Americans” was written for Matthau and Lemmon but Walter had to back out because of health issues and Garner stepped in (nice move!).

Also nice is the very small role played by Lauren Bacall. While she did only 11 lines, according to IMDb.com, if such a small part is award-worthy then she should have earned one here. The wasted effort is by Dan Aykroyd, as he’s not given much to work with here and the audience doesn’t get a chance for a superb effort from him (of course, given his uneven track record you could have had it much worse), and Sela Ward, who plays a TV reporter.

In “My Fellow Americans” Lemmon and Garner are former presidents who get caught up in a Washington D.C. scandal. Each is involved in a different way and are forced to join forces when a White House operative tries to have them killed. They then begin an odyssey to get the evidence to show the current president is to blame. Along the way they pick at each other, learn about each other and encounter real people who remind them that politics is far removed from what their constituents face on a daily basis.

The plot is solid with a few exceptions (read stereotypes or suspension of your disbelief) necessary to keep the former presidents moving along. Still, it is the actors’ interplay that keeps you watching. They dart from piece of Americana to the next – from a diner to a gay rights parade (the parade is especially funny with the men not realizing what they are in at first and waving energetically to the crowd) and finally wind back up at the White House.

Here’s a look at some of the plot through the work of actors:

  • Two-time Oscar winner Lemmon, who also had six other nominations, shows his age a bit here as “President Russell P. Kramer,” but had not lost any of his talent or, as needed, his edge. Lemmon does a very good job evolving his character over the course of the film and, of course, has no trouble making you like him. Lemmon won Oscars for “Mister Roberts” and “Save the Tiger” but I liked his work best in “Missing,” which is a Costa-Gavras political film. He was also good in “The China Syndrome.” Lemmon died at 76 in 2001 after a seven-decade career (1949 to 2000) with 95 acting credits.
  • While Garner didn’t have Lemmon’s pedigree (he only had one Oscar nomination), he shows off just as much talent here as his opposite number. Garner does affable really well – just try HBO’s “Barbarians at the Gate” … click here for my review – and knows how to make friends with the audience. I believe Matthau couldn’t have done as good a job here as Garner. Other films by Garner include “Move Over, Darling” with Doris Day, “Murphy’s Romance” (his Oscar nomination) and TV’s “The Rockford Files.” He died at 86 in 2014.
  • You can’t get a fix on what Aykroyd would have done as “President William Haney” with a better-written character. He doesn’t display any tendency to be banal here (as he does in other films, as he is a home run-or-strikeout kind of actor), but he just doesn’t get the chance he needs. Of course I liked him best with Jamie Lee Curtis in “Trading Places” (click here for my review) and he was nominated for an Oscar not for comedy but for “Driving Miss Daisy.”
  • Also MIA in the screenplay is the character “Kaye Griffin” played by Ward. Ward is smooth and confident as a TV reporter and the film sets her character up for success but then leaves her on the sidelines. It would have been better to have cut her small part out completely and not teased us with what could have been. Ward is a Golden Globe winner and did wonderful work on TV’s “House M.D.” as well as films such as “The Fugitive.”
  • As I already noted, screen legend Bacall does a great job here. She doesn’t have much, but what she offers is just prime. An Oscar nominee for “The Mirror Has Two Faces,” Bacall is Lemmon’s wife “Margaret Kramer.” Although I would have liked to have seen more – she could have been a third wheel on the presidents’ odyssey – I’m glad it wasn’t tried and then failed. I like what I see here. Bacall, like Garner, died in 2014. She was 89 and most famously had been married in real life to Humphrey Bogart.
  • The best pure acting here is done by supporting actors Connie Ray and Jack Kehler as “Genny” and “Wayne.” The presidents hook up with their family on their trek but wind up turned out of the couple’s station wagon because of politics. Ray is especially effective as she turns her quiet, respectful wrath on politicians whose policies have hurt her family. Very effective work from a small part. Ray was also solid in a small role in “Thank You for Smoking” (click here for my review) and Kehler as of this writing has a prolific career of 158 acting credits including “The Big Lebowski.”
  • Two other supporting actors, three-time Primetime Emmy nominee Conchata Ferrell and Ester Rolle, also do memorable work in small roles. Ferrell plays “Woman Truck Driver” and uses her trademark irascible insouciance to perfection, while Rolle, who plays White House chef “Rita,” offers casual grace to her character. Ferrell is best known as sharp-tongued housekeeper “Berta” in TV’s “Two and a Half Men” (I always mention that the casting of talentless Ashton Kutcher ruined the franchise) and was also memorable on TV’s “A. Law,” while Golden Globe nominee Rolle is best remembered for her work on TV’s “Good Times.” Rolle died at 78 two years after the release of “My Fellow Americans
  • John Heard plays the Dan Quayle-like “Vice President Ted Matthews” and he isn’t as dumb as he plays. Heard does a good job with the role that sneaks in from the background. He was much better in “Betrayed” as an FBI supervising agent (click here for my review) or as an executive in “Big” with Tom Hanks. You’ll most likely remember him as the father in the “Home Alone” franchise.

I’ve run out of time and won’t mention the very solid work of four other supporting actors here: Everett McGill as “Col. Paul Tanner;” Bradley Whitford as “Carl Witnauer;” James Rebhorn as “Charlie Reynolds” and Wilford Brimley as “Joe Hollis.” All four are worthy of the attention I gave others, but I’ve got to end this some time.

With all the attention being given to gay issues in the past year, the gay pride parade scene, women bikers and a Secret Service agent who has a secret from his service, “My Fellow Americans” touches on the subject very well given the time of the film and it’s certainly without rancor.

Since the World War II classic “The Great Escape” is one of my war favorites (click here for my review), it doesn’t go unnoticed that Garner and Lemmon’s escape from a train mirrors Garner’s jump from a train in the earlier one – right down to a comment about hay (there are large haystacks in the field when he jumps in the WWII movie) and being asked to push his buddy off the train.

My Fellow Americans” was the 71st ranked film of the year with $22.3 million in ticket sales, according to Box Office Mojo. The film wasn’t a hit with investors, either, as it was made on a budget of $21.5 million, according to Wiki. The No. 1 film of the year was “Independence Day” with $306.1 million. Films from that year I’ve reviewed include:

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

  • Along with Garner and Bacall, Rebhorn died in 2014. The actor, who seemed to specialize in playing arrogant characters, died of complications from melanoma at the age of 65. Rebhorn was the egotistical and manipulative headmaster in “Scent of a Woman,” the conniving official in “Independence Day” and a snooty doctor in “Meet the Parents.” He, too, had a prolific career of 127 credits over seven decades (1951-2013).
  • Bacall’s real name was Betty Joan Perske and after four years after Bogey’s death she married another superbly talented actor – Jason Robards (they were divorced in 1969 after eight years of marriage).
  • Directly from IMDb.com: “Wilford Brimley plays the chairman of the Democratic National Committee. In real life, Brimley is a Republican and campaigned for John McCain for President in 2008.”

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2015.
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