Eddie Murphy's glib 'Gentleman' is distinguished by its banality

December 04, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

In "The Distinguished Gentleman," Mr. Murphy goes to Washington, and discovers a city that is last in war, last in peace, and not even in the American League any more.

The movie itself isn't much better: It's last in laughs, last in drama but first in Murphy ego, as he gives a performance that everybody has seen before, only louder.

The gimmick in the plot is that it attempts to reverse the trajectory in all those other Washington movies, the ones where the naive and earnest crusader moves to D.C. and is corrupted by the greed and sleaze that is so a part of the system. In this one, the young man is already a rascal, and he heads Potomacwards to rake in the loot; but a moral epiphany moves him back into the human race, and he instead plots to overthrow a powerful but corrupt House leader.

Hmmm. If I didn't know better, I'd suggest another name for the film might be "The Newt Gingrich Story," with Eddie as Newt, for it certainly seems to play off the conservative Georgian's extremely crafty and ultimately successful campaign to unseat powerful Texas Congressman and House Speaker James Wright. It's entirely characteristic of the potato-headedness of the film that the makers don't seem to understand the origin of their own story. I don't think they even know the difference between Republicans and Democrats.

Anyway, Murphy plays his familiar bodacious scalawag, a con man with a glib tongue and a self-loving laugh as broad as all outdoors. When a well-known congressman dies, it occurs to Murphy that, having the same name (Jeff Johnson) as the real guy, he could easily capitalize on "name recognition" factor, head to D.C. and let the Interest Groups start bying him Mercedes-Benzes.

There, untroubled by moral qualms, he quickly gathers a reputation as a vote-for-sale, which in turn brings him to the attention of party bigwig Lane Smith. Smith, since an epochal appearance as Richard Nixon in "The Final Days," has made a prosperous living playing corpulent,scuzzy politicos and lawyers, and director Jonathan Lynn used him in his last movie, "My Cousin Vinny." What nobody seems to understand is that actors such as Smith eventually acquire a banality of presence that leaches the edge from anything in which they play. One look at Smith and you know what's going to happen.

It does. Murphy, his glands titillated by an earnest liberal activist (Victoria Rowell), is further morally awakened when he discovers that a "cancer cluster" -- a neighborhood with an unusually high incidence of cancer among children, hard by some suspicious power lines -- occurs in his own district. When he uncovers the smarmy interrelationship between Smith and the president of the power company, he decides to use his con-man's skill to destroy the bad boys.

But none of his cons are particularly clever. This movie desperately needs some dazzling twists, some unexpected riffs, some sharp moves. Instead, Murphy's scam seems extremely simple and mean-spirited, to say nothing of being completely unbelievable. It all turns on the idea of a sharp operator like Smith suddenly throwing double-zeros in the IQ department. I don't think so.

Now and then there's a sequence of humor: I loved a scene where some gun manufacturers try to get Murphy to back the idea of using assault rifles for duck hunting. And Murphy's gift for accents is well deployed. And finally Charles Dutton has a nice turn as a passionate Maryland congressman.

'The Distinguished Gentleman'

Starring Eddie Murphy and Lane Smith.

Directed by Jonathan Lynn.

Released by Hollywood Pictures.

Rated R.

... **

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