The Eddie Murphy Project: Con Man (The Distinguished Gentleman & the Scam)

Abe Beame's series on the epochal comedian's work continues with this 1992 film.
By    November 15, 2019

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Abe Beame will always be the critics’ choice.

By 1992, the Eddie Murphy persona was consecrated in the public imagination. He was more than a movie star, he was more than an industry, he had introduced a new type of leading man to film. Murphy was an uber confident, cunning opportunist with a heart of gold. His vehicles were exercises in finding obstacles for Murphy to bluff and scheme around. As we’ve discussed, he did this as a con turned cop in the 48 Hours series, as a hustler turned commodities trader in Trading Places and as a detective traversing the monied echelons of polite Californian society in Beverly Hills Cop. Even in Boomerang, Eddie is presented as a man whose love language is fabricated out of manipulation. In all these films, improvisation and lies are tools employed for a lofty goal. Whether Solving a murder, fighting a force of malevolent evil, even finding love however misguided, there’s always a higher purpose. The Distinguished Gentleman is thrilling and fascinating because during its first half, Eddie’s bullshit is the means to its own end.

It’s somewhat astonishing that it took 10 years of movie stardom to get around to casting Eddie Murphy as a politician. The Distinguished Gentleman is perhaps the most perfect presentation of his trickster figure. His character, Thomas Jefferson Johnson, is one of the delightfully meanest and rawest characters Murphy would ever play. The film’s satire of Capitol Hill and political grift can be heavy handed but it had real bite that is more relevant than ever today. In some ways, the shock of watching it in 2019 is much of the illegalities committed by the film’s swamp of lobbyists, special interests and politicians conspiring in saunas are now perfectly constitutional.

This is not to say the film is great, or even very good in sections. This was Murphy’s first film with Disney and away from Paramount. Murphy had a firm grasp of what he wanted from his films at this point, and a mandate for how he was to be portrayed, so it’s tempting to lay the film’s formulaic, redemptive narrative at Disney’s conventional feet but it’s just as likely Murphy was responsible for its shortcomings. It was written by Marty Kaplan, a former speechwriter for Walter Mondale and there are stretches of the film that crackle with the urgency of a blown whistle. His Mr. Smith Goes to Washington riff anticipates the Koch Brothers, Erin Brokovich and Vice

But of course, there’s the gorgeous love interest who represents pro bono interests and the melodrama of a cute little kid with a terminal disease and a white Makavelian bastard senior congressional id pulling the strings and an abrupt middle third turn where Murphy locates his moral compass in a film that renders character development non-existent. Which is a shame because the director, Jonathan Lynn, is not without distinction. He had Clue on his resume and the same year he dropped My Cousin Vinny. Here, he feels like a director with his wings clipped.

But the fun of the film is Murphy gleefully hamming it up, ripping and running through the halls of justice with an array of impressions and scams at his disposal. He first wins his seat because an entrenched incumbent dies suddenly before an election. Thomas Jefferson Johnson takes all the banners, buttons and bumper stickers off his horny widow, runs a phantom campaign with his ragtag crew of con artists, refusing any public appearances, and leaves it to an uninformed and apathetic Floridian electorate to rubber stamp him in as an independent.   

It’s a misanthropic satirical gag worthy of Mike Judge. When Mr. Murphy gets to Washington his miseducation is similar to Dick Cheney’s tutelage as Donald Rumsfeld’s apprentice. Game immediately recognizes game as fellow congressmen warm to Murphy and rather than resent his shortcut, admire how he scammed his seat. 

The best stretch in the film comes when Johnson ascertains he’ll be best positioned at the armrest of the seat of power and its limitless supply of special interest dollars beside great “who’s that evil white asshole”, Lane Smith as Dick Dodge, chairman of the Power and Industry committee. Johnson wants yet another shortcut onto his committee, it’s typically a 12-20 year seniority appointment. So Johnson fabricates a protest over representation. He calls Dodge’s office under the guise of an NAACP firebrand named Joshua Benjamin who speaks in the musical cadence of Martin Luther King. One of Jonathan Lynn’s greatest beats is panning around the room during this scene. His reaction shots of Johnson’s crew reveling in the pleasure of watching comedic genius is akin to a Spielberg shot of Laura Dern seeing a live Brachiosaurus for the first time.

One of the more interesting elements of that scam and the film is this is the only time race is even mentioned. It was a period when Murphy had made a string of films with nearly all black casts (Coming to America, Harlem Nights and Boomerang) and there’s a chance he made the decision to downplay the racial element in his depiction of Washington, but in the logic of the film it makes sense and doesn’t feel forced. In the scam artist, the lobbyists and dealmakers see a kindred spirit and appeal to him immediately. They don’t see a person of color, they see a reliable earner whose vote and perceived lack of moral fiber makes him an asset. 

This is more than playing a game of social chicken with a hotel concierge or feigning leglessness on the streets of Philly for loose change. Murphy has weaponized his bullshit and is using his powers to manipulate the levers of American democracy. Trading Places had an opportunity to explore this concept. There’s a meaner update to be made that utilizes his conniving bullshit, backed by the Duke Brothers’ infinite resources that allows Murphy to manipulate the markets in the way the super wealthy now bully us all, using short selling and leaking to generate profit. As it is, he lacked agency in terms of the mechanics of the plot of Trading Places. As he and Akroyd work to deliver justice to the Dukes, Akroyd is the scheme’s architect and Murphy is the brute force, quick thinking and talking his way out of situations down the stretch towards resolution.

But The Distinguished Gentleman was his showcase alone. It’s peak Eddie unburdened of the distractions of wacky plot contrivances or side character arcs that take the focus off of him in some of his best films. As such, you could make an argument it is the last of his great naturalistic comedic performances, before he returned as a cartoon character in a fat suit. We’ll be discussing that fat suit next time but in the context of The Distinguished Gentleman it makes sense. The film was a critical bomb, at the time considered even worse than The Golden Child. It has a 13% on Rotten Tomatoes. 

But in what was an even greater sin, it lost money. The reported budget was $50 million, you would think a decent amount of which would’ve been Eddie’s salary (during this period likely around $15 million), and the film made 46. Even Harlem Nights, another film considered a disappointment by Eddie’s impossible standards had brought in triple its budget. It seems like a kind of Eddie fatigue had settled in. The Distinguished Gentleman was something of a throwback, a return to the Landis by Capra comedy with great aspirations that lacked the teeth of the slightly smarter, meaner film it needed to be. But without the action franchise hook people just didn’t show up for a movie from a movie star coming off a string of films considered less than stellar, particularly after it had been roundly panned by critics. For many his schtick had worn thin. Which is a shame, because like I said, with a context free re-watch the film contains some of his best work.

Following this Murphy returned to the familiar safety of existing IP waters with another Beverly Hills Cop, helmed by his old friend John Landis. He’d try a truly bizarre genre experiment with Wes Craven, Vampire in Brooklyn (which we’ll also be discussing next time), and then came The Nutty Professor. With his invulnerability suddenly gone, perhaps Eddie took stock and decided a fat suit would be a perfect place to hide.

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