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The Distinguished Gentleman Reviews

Late 1992 saw the release of two films featuring an American flag in their opening credits. Both dealt with an African-American whose intelligence, vision and determination enabled him to turn the American political world upside down. One of these was Spike Lee's epic MALCOLM X. The other is the flip side of that heroic vision, a piece of cotton candy called THE DISTINGUISHED GENTLEMAN. Thomas Jefferson Johnson (Eddie Murphy) is a con man who one day realizes that the similarity of his name to that of recently departed Florida Congressman Jefferson Davis Johnson could just get him elected to the House of Representatives. Campaigning as "Jeff Johnson" (his near-namesake's informal moniker), he wins the election without having given a speech or even made a public appearance. Once installed in Washington, Johnson and his cohorts are completely baffled by their new surroundings until they enlist the services of the former congressman's administrative aide, Reinhardt (Grant Shaud). Johnson is welcomed into Congress, and soon finds that his experience as a con artist makes him a natural player of the influence-peddling game. His biggest coup is to land a lucrative position on the all-important Power and Industry Committee, chaired by Dick Dodge (Lane Smith); it's not as easy for him to pull the wool over the eyes of beautiful pro bono lobbyist Celia Kirby (Victoria Rowell) and her righteous liberal uncle, the Reverend Elijah Hawkins (Charles S. Dutton). Johnson's mercenary impulses finally lose out to his nobler side when he decides to blow the whistle on a Dodge-engineered coverup involving cancer-causing powerlines placed near schools in his district. Thanks to Jonathan Lynn's pedestrian direction and an uninspired script, THE DISTINGUISHED GENTLEMEN does little to pull Eddie Murphy's career out of what looks like a consistent, if gentle, decline. On occasion, the former box-office champ is very funny: Johnson's acceptance speech is a hilarious pastiche of boilerplate political cliches, and his ability to adopt different characters and accents on demand remains a delight to watch. There's just not enough good material, however, to sustain the comic pace. The supporting cast is terrific, with highest marks going to Smith as the unctuous power-monger. (Profanity.)