Genius of the system

Washington a city of broken dreams

Published: Aug 28 2016, 01:01:am

Friday, December 4, 1992.

THE DISTINGUISHED GENTLEMAN. Written by Marty Kaplan. Music by Randy Edelman. Directed by Jonathan Lynn. Running time: 112 minutes. Rated 14 Years Limited Admission with the warning: some very coarse language, occasional suggestive scenes.
    Consider your position on sugar subsidies, Congressman.
    Vote “yes,” and the farm lobby will contribute big bucks to your campaign fund.
    Vote “no,” and the candy manufacturers will be equally grateful, and as generous.
    Any questions?
    With all this money coming in from both sides, how does anything ever get done?” freshman Representative Thomas Jefferson Johnson (Eddie Murphy) asks his luncheon companion, K Street power broker Terry Corrigan (Kevin McCarthy).
    It doesn’t,” the savvy lawyer says gleefully. “That’s the genius of the system!”
    Ouch! The Distinguished Gentleman, containing foul-mouthed funnyman Eddie Murphy's best screen work in an age, is a political satire with more than a little sting.
    A political sophisticate, British-born director Jonathan Lynn successfully turns the classic Mister Smith Goes to Washington on its head. Unlike Frank Capra's Boy Ranger Jefferson Smith, T. Jefferson Johnson knows that the nation’s capital is scam city.
    An ambitious con artist, he aspires to office for the sweet deals. When Jeff Johnson (James Garner), the genially corrupt Representative for Florida’s Sixth Congressional District, drops dead, independent candidate Thomas J. rides name recognition to an electoral victory.
    Written by former Washington insider Marty Kaplan, Lynn’s comedy assumes that we’re all as cynical as T.J. We all know that “the system ain’t perfect, but the fleas come with the dog.”
    Prominent among the fleas is Power and Industry Committee chairman Dick Dodge (Lane Smith), the senior member of Florida’s House delegation. “Flukes like you are either nutcakes or troublemakers,” he tells Johnson.
    Satisfied that the freshman is suitably corruptible, Dodge takes the eager-to-please Johnson under his wing. Like Mr. Smith, though, Mr. Johnson will get wised up by a beautiful woman.
    In Johnson’s case, romance and redemption come in the form of corporate law drop-out Celia Kirby (Victoria Rowell). Intense and intensely proper, Ms K. labours on behalf of the public advocacy group Pro Bono.
    Going in, I knew about Lynn's impressive comedy credentials. The co-creator of BBC Television’s Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister, he generated big screen laughter with 1990’s Nuns On The Run and My Cousin Vinny (1992).
    But, I wondered, can Lynn control the notorious Mr. Murphy? Happily, he can. The verbal virtuosity on display here is for accents rather than expletives.
    Though the Brooklyn-born comic has yet to show much depth, Kaplan’s crisply plotted screenplay draws upon the full breadth of his known talents. As a mimic of voices and mannerisms, Murphy is first rate.
    If Lynn's satire lacks the bracingly savage bite of the recently released Bob Roberts, it’s probably because he’s working within a system that insists upon upbeat, Capraesque endings.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1992. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: Delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King Junior’s 1963 speech was a defining moment in the U.S. civil rights movement. Remembered for its soaring rhetoric and its call for racial justice, it described “a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. One day this nation will rise up and live up to its creed: "We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal." King’s leadership resulted in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and, a week after his assassination, the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Less remembered today are King’s battles for economic justice. The year he died, he was planning an occupation of Washington that he called “the Poor People’s Campaign,” the natural extension of his long-held belief that the system was broken and that “capitalism has outlived its usefulness.”
    Some 30 years later, director Jonathan Lynn’s The Distinguished Gentleman delivered a mixed message on the state of King’s dream. On the one hand, it showed that African Americans (such as Eddie Murphy) were now among Hollywood’s A-list stars. On the other, it agreed with King that the system remained broken. At the end of the picture, Murphy’s character Thomas J. Johnson realizes that his Congressional colleagues are working to have his election declared invalid. Undaunted, he turns to the camera and, speaking directly to the audience, announces “I’m gonna run for president.”
    In 2008, an African American did just that. Barack H. Obama’s campaign slogan was “Change We Can Believe In.” After his inauguration, the belief that “Yes We Can” ran into “the genius of the system” that was exposed in The Distinguished Gentleman. And now, eight years later, U.S. voters are faced with the realization that, with the exception of America’s egregiously rich, they’re no better off than they were then. It can be argued that “the system” that frustrated the articulate Obama prepared the way for the rise of reality candidate Donald J. Trump. One corporatist party offers the illusion of progress by nominating a woman, confident that she is an establishmentarian committed to the status quo. The other party, torn apart by its own internal contradictions, finds itself represented by a larking billionaire. Again there is the promise of change, and it has energized an angry and dissatisfied segment of the electorate.
    King understood that movements exist to address unfulfilled hopes. “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality,” he said in that 1963 speech. “We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one . . . We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote, and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.” Today, in an age of unrelenting political disillusionment, African Americans are just one among many groups who believe they have nothing for which to vote.