Mr. Murphy goes to Washington and the big winner is Mickey Mouse, as Disney figures to cash in with a hefty honorarium from this uneven but occasionally quite funny political satire. Those tired of Eddie Murphy Classic–down to the over-used wheezing laugh–may not line up to shake hands with this gentleman, but fans will get a chance to see the comic (as opposed to actor) strut his stuff more amiably than in his last several outings for Paramount.
Coming out of a national election, the movie starts with a very funny premise that it doesn’t sustain once the action shifts to the nation’s capitol: What if a con man swept into Washington by virtue of using the same name as a recently deceased congressman–the idea being that most people don’t know if their representative is dead or alive anyway.
The twist, of course, is that the biggest scams of all go on, legally, in Washington. Yet while the con artist arrives intent on cashing in on the public dole, from a sea of political action committees and interest groups, his better nature takes over and prompts him to do the ethical thing.
The screenplay by Marty Kaplan (a former speechwriter for Walter Mondale) certainly has its fun with the depraved ins and outs of politics, even if there are no new wrinkles beyond the genuine indignation of”Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
Where Kaplan ends up looking like a political novice is in the way he structures his main character. The transformation of Jeff Johnson (Murphy, who shares the name with a philandering senator played in a cameo by James Garner) into a caring sort is never convincing, other than his understandable desire to woo the fetching niece (Victoria Rowell) of a principled rep (Charles S. Dutton).
Instead of oratorical fire and brimstone, however, Jeff goes on the offensive by setting out to stage a sting against Dick Dodge (Lane Smith), the amoral senior congressman from his state.
“The Distinguished Gentleman” is an amalgam of past Murphy roles but most closely resembles “Trading Places,” down to the broad humor, the pleasure of seeing Murphy as a fish-out-of-water among the snooty upper crust and the idea of a con man who exacts final vengeance on his one-time benefactors.
Though Murphy tried to hack it as more of a romantic lead in “Boomerang” and “Harlem Nights,” he reverts here to various strengths more suited to his stand-up talents–from his obvious gifts as a mimic to his aptitude for ethnic voices. (Several scenes, in fact, seem to have been added solely for use in the movie’s trailer.)
Where the film excels, actually, is in the supporting roles, with Smith wonderfully smarmy as the congressman mark and the likes of “Murphy Brown’s” Grant Shaud, Dutton, Joe Don Baker and Kevin McCarthy as other Washington archetypes, as well as Sheryl Lee Ralph as the foxiest member of Murphy’s entourage.
Director Jonathan Lynn (“My Cousin Vinny”) maintains a steady pace but can’t avoid arid stretches, and the film drags whenever it ventures too far into propping up Murphy’s shallow character. There’s an affecting moment, for example , when the congressman encounters a young cancer victim, but it’s so incongruous with the rest of the movie it feels like a cheap ploy to generate instant sympathy.
Similarly, if the idea of corruption and corporate arm-twisting is the same as “Mr. Smith,” it’s perhaps a sign of the times that Mr. Johnson’s moral outrage comes only after his own interests are threatened, when Dodge’s underhanded trick costs him his lady love.
Tech credits get an “aye” vote, from Randy Edelman’s lively score to the costume and set designs, underscoring the heights of Washington largess.