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The Distinguished Gentleman.

If you prefer something more escapist, less demanding, "The Distinguished Gentleman" should provide surefooted escape from winter blahs. It also demonstrates that despite Eddie Murphy's justified reputation as the movies' most winning con man, a good script and a comedywise director make all the difference.

His recent vehicles have been deadly bores. Here, supplied with a shrewd screenplay by Marty Kaplan and directed by Jonathan Lynn ("Nuns on the Run," "My Cousin Vinny"), Murphy races through one fast piece of business to the next, never breaking stride.

Eddie plays a longtime operator named Thomas Jefferson Johnson, whose most successful scam has been a phone-in service called "Girls of All Nations" (1-800-555-NATO), the primary purpose of which is to obtain names of male customers -- who then become victims of a shakedown.

As we first meet Eddie, he's intimidating the host of a Florida political fund-raiser, who pays him off handsomely to avoid embarrassment. In the process, Murphy discovers the more lucrative field of politics, and when the local (corrupt and white, synonyms throughout the movie) congressman, also named Johnson, suffers a fatal heart attack, Eddie decides to run for the vacated office.

Pretending to be a political-science teacher who wants to establish an archive in honor of the departed public servant, he calls on the widow, acquires avast supply of buttons and signs that say "Johnson" and runs a positive campaign based completely on name recognition, carefully keeping his own photograph unavailable. Quick shots of the candidate working the sound truck, employing Southern, Afro-American, Latino and Yiddish accents in ethnically appropriate neighborhoods, show Murphy at his best.

The movie's exposure of the evils of Congress, special interests, Washington gridlock and such sometimes sounds like Ross Perot, but it's a lot funnier. Inevitably, its bite has more to do with race than with the deficit. Especially successful are Murphy's victory speech (a succession of cliches, from "We have nothing to fear but fear itself" and "The people have spoken" to "Read my lips") and his highly paid two-sentence address to the poultry growers' association.

Sarcasm is broad as Murphy moves from prejudiced cliches about getting "your people off their lazy behinds" to phone calls that use affirmative action as a slogan to get himself on the Power and Industry Committee, the most lucrative source of graft in Washington.

"The Distinguished Gentleman" recalls BBC's "Yes, Minister" when Murphy, coached by his crooked congressional mentor, discovers that there are such a variety of special interests that he can pull in unrestricted contributions, no matter which side he decides to support on upcoming votes. If that is the case, he asks, how does anything get done? "Nothing does get done," the committee chairman says with satisfaction. "That's the beauty of our system."

Although Murphy keeps everything spinning, he's not the whole show. He gets professional comic support from Sheryl Lee Ralph, his principal assistant in the Girls of All Nations swindle, and from such farce heavies as Lorne Smith, Joe Don Baker and Kevin McCarthy, Washington insiders who are even worse than those excoriated in the recent presidential campaign.

It's all played for fun rather than outrage, however, as in the scene when the lobby for automatic weapons includes Murphy in their M-16-armed duck-hunting party. After a long, fruitless fusillade, one bird finally falls, prompting Eddie's punch line: "It must have had a heart attack."

There's a feint in the direction of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" sentimentality when an idealistic young Afro-American woman (Victoria Powell) tries to interest the new congressman in public-interest causes, and he meets a constituent's child whose cancer was caused by utility power lines.

Fortunately, neither the scriptwriter nor Murphy take this invitation to pathos too seriously. Eddie doesn't mind turning a congressional hearing into an uproar, but makes sure to throw a wink to the audience, just in case they were beginning to confuse him with Jimmy Stewart.
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Author:Cunneen, Joseph
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:Jan 8, 1993
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