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‘The Distinguished Gentleman’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 04, 1992

Are you an aspiring Buddhist wishing to test your ability to accept everything? If so, "The Distinguished Gentleman" is the movie for you. Should you get through this Eddie Murphy political comedy without fatigue, frustration or boredom, you may consider your serenity complete.

For my fellow materialists, not to mention Murphy fans, I must advise you not to undergo such pointless torture. This Hollywood Pictures production (basically, a Walt Disney adult venture) culls every Capitol-corruption cliche in the book for the dullest 90 minutes Murphy has ever appeared in. Yes, including "The Golden Child." There have been filibusters more exciting than this dull spin on "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."

As Thomas Jefferson Johnson, Murphy runs various scam operations, including a phone sex outfit. On an elaborate hustle at a political fund-raiser, Murphy overhears incumbent Florida congressman James Garner talking graft with a lobbyist. Instantly he realizes there's better money to be made as an elected official -- and legally, too.

He gets his opportunity when Garner (who happens to share Murphy's name) keels over in the embrace of his mistress. Banking on his namesake's recognition factor, Murphy gets on the ballot and finds himself in Congress faster than you can say "Perot factor." With phone-sex cronies Sheryl Lee Ralph, Sonny Jim Gaines and Victor Rivers as his staffers, and experienced administration aide Grant Shaud as his Svengali, Murphy learns the ways of Washington.

"Where are you on your price supports?" asks lawyer Kevin McCarthy at Murphy's first power-brokering lunch.

"Where should I be?" asks Murphy. The lawyer tells him that, whatever side Murphy takes, McCarthy will match him up with the right donors.

"With all this money coming from both sides," asks Murphy, "how could anything ever get done?"

"It doesn't," says McCarthy.

Murphy's fat-city status is complete when he lands an unprecedentedly quick position on the powerful Power and Industry Committee, led by sleazy senator Lane Smith. But Murphy suffers a setback when he sets ravenous eyes on good lobbyist Victoria Rowell, who is the niece of good-guy senator/preacher Charles S. Dutton.

The deeper Murphy falls for Rowell, the more his moral conscience starts to rise -- and the more you squirm in your seat. Murphy also meets a young constituent who has suffered cancer because of overhead power lines -- the other side of his new lobbyist pals. Torn between sleaze and conscience, Murphy must do what he would never do in real life.

Murphy rarely gets to let loose. The script, by executive producer Marty Kaplan, is riddled with dull, sitcom morality and pedestrian jokestering. When Murphy is forced to deliver an off-the-cuff acceptance speech, a collection of sound-bite cliches, such as "The people have spoken" and "Read my lips," it's only his big-smile and boomy-voiced presence that gives the scene any humor. Murphy fancies his ability to mime in tongues, from good ol' boy to Jewish, but he's less than inspired. The best vocal shtick he does (and the funniest moment in the movie) is when he poses on the telephone as a member of the NAACP, intoning like Martin Luther King Jr.

Another rare Murphy moment comes when vengeful Smith tries to expose Murphy on television by showing Murphy's pre-political rap sheet. Murphy looks it over and acknowledges most of it is true, "except for this thing" -- and he points to the sheet -- "this woman got her shoes back."

If Murphy is to succeed at anything, it's in freewheeling moments like this. But the suit he's forced to wear in "Distinguished Gentleman" is too pinched. All too often, this meeting of Murphy and Disney amounts to goofy gridlock.

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