Battle of the exes is almost great

December 20, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

In "My Fellow Americans," Lemmon and Garner do America. The presidential comedy is built around the notion of the two avuncular stars as un-like-minded exes, wandering the country encountering real Americans and real problems. In its heart it wants to be a Frank Capra or a Preston Sturges film. But it isn't really a battle between the Democrat and the Republican so much as between the good movie and the bad movie.

The good movie is a kind of gloss on "The Odd Couple," about two hopelessly mismatched men forced by circumstances to cohabit despite their mutual loathing, and finding each other to be boon companions. The two actors are majestic: They have the easy affability, sense of controlled hostility and precise comic timing that make or break a buddy picture. Call it chemistry, electricity, ceramics or carpentry, Lemmon and Garner work together like the burnished old pros they are.

Unfortunately this amusing core is wedged into quite an unnecessarily brutal thriller plot, like something machined out of the lesser works of Robert Ludlum, complete to assassinations, explosions, car chases, kidnappings and sniper action.

Worse, all this is laid ludicrously at the hands of the meek decryptors at the National Security Agency, those nerds with the computers, satellite uplinks and plastic pen holders in their pockets, sitting out in that big, dreary motel-like building at Fort Meade. I mean, really, anyone could do better than that!

The fundamental comic idea is surrealism. Garner (the liberal Democrat) and Lemmon (the conservative Republican) are presented as men of good heart but also of great ego. Each, in his own way, is vain, pontifical, self-important, over-used to the perk lifestyle and somewhat dismissive of the little people who serve them. But the plot conspires to put them in continually humiliating and insane circumstances: trying to order hot dogs at a truck stop, for example, or stuck in the back seat of a station wagon with a nasty kid entirely unimpressed by their high sense of self.

Moroever, each has his own share of frailties, melted down cleverly from cliche archetypes of liberal and conservative. Garner's Matt Russell is continually looking for ways to convert his celebrityhood to sexual power, never turning down a shot at an easy conquest.

Lemmon's Russell Kramer, on the other hand, is turning his celebrityhood to cash, selling it to Japanese insurance companies and through a line of action figures at his library, which is really a rather large gift store.

These encounters are always funny, not merely in and of themselves but as they give the actors splendid opportunities to score off each other. The movie even veers occasionally toward poignancy, in one scene where the two exes condescendingly lecture a working-class family on their various banalities, unaware they are in the presence of genuine tragedy. They are gently corrected, then, as they well deserve, politely but firmly dumped by the roadside. It's a wonderful, heartfelt moment.

But in the other half of the film, a bunch of loonies, led by the skull-like Everett McGill (whatever happened to Michael Ironsides, who used to always get this role?), try to track them down, corral them, and ultimately chase them through the White House attempting to murder them. And speaking of weak plot devices, the magic secret doorway that saves their lives must be connected to the magical stairway that appears at the end of "Daylight."

If "My Fellow Americans" had ever decided which movie it wanted to be, it might have been pretty good. As it is, the good half and the bad half all but cancel each other out.

'My Fellow Americans'

Starring Jack Lemmon and James Garner

Directed by Peter Segal

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated PG-13

Sun score: ** 1/2

Pub Date: 12/20/96

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