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‘The Distinguished Gentleman’ (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 04, 1992

Like Mr. Smith and Billy Jack before him, "The Distinguished Gentleman" comes to Washington -- only this time to share in looting the public pork barrel. But with Disney chairing the committee, this would-be political satire turns into a sappy farce that shamelessly pits influence peddlers against a con man who develops values when elected to Congress -- thanks to a little constituent who has an operable brain tumor. That darn cancer.

A restrained Eddie Murphy dusts off his "SNL" shtick for the role of Thomas Jefferson Johnson, a happy-go-lucky hustler with the same name as the recently deceased incumbent. He finagles his way onto the ballot and into office with help from a rainbow coalition of hopelessly cliched racial and ethnic stereotypes.

As a crook determined to line his own pockets, he couldn't be more at home in Sodom on the Potomac. Taken under the wing of oily power committee chairman Dick Dodge (Lane Smith), Congressman Johnson is soon raking in the PAC contributions from industry lobbyists in return for access. Then he finds love.

Enter the fetching Celia (Victoria Rowell), a church-going activist who seeks Johnson's support for her good causes and in so doing awakens his latent idealistic tendencies. Enter the kid with cancer, the scars from surgery still evident on her little bald head. It seems that Dodge is in cahoots with special-interest groups to block an EPA investigation linking cancer clusters to power lines in playgrounds.

Johnson promises Celia that he will urge Dodge to comply, but he is talked into a coverup by the Nixonian chairman and his beefy Southern cronies. The new-found light in his eyes is flickering out. Clap, boys and girls, if you believe Mr. Johnson can learn to believe in "American family values."

The screenplay is surprisingly commonplace considering that it was written by former Washington insider Marty Kaplan -- a Disney executive who used to write Vice President Walter Mondale's speeches. Of course, if you think about it, "The Distinguished Gentleman" is about as memorable as one of the Minnesota Democrat's droning pronouncements. Thankfully it is also a whole lot funnier -- at least some of the time. Alas, it's too coarsely drawn and broadly directed by Brit Jonathan Lynn to effectively skewer what ought to have been an easy target. Politicians are corrupt. Stop the presses.

"The Distinguished Gentleman" is rated R for sex and profanity.

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