When you take in an Eddie Murphy comedy, even a patchwork one like The Golden Child, you can generally count on being treated to a helping of Eddie Murphy Sprinkles — those moments when Murphy, through the speed, bravado, and sheer devilish brashness of his wit, breaks out of the lumbering farce around him and gives the audience an exuberant shot of pleasure. In The Distinguished Gentleman, Murphy plays a con artist who gets himself elected to Congress and discovers — surprise! — that it’s full of scheming fat cats (in other words, fellow con artists). That’s the entire movie. The Distinguished Gentleman is an inside-the-Beltway satire that makes every joke about Washington you already knew from Mad magazine. Yet every so often Murphy comes up with another Sprinkle.
In one scene, he gets on the phone and pretends to be an official from the NAACP. The gag itself is no big whoop; what puts it over is the way Murphy speaks in the pipe-organ tones of Martin Luther King Jr. Even after you’ve stopped hearing what he’s saying, that righteous theatrical quaver, with its suggestion that King himself had more than a bit of ham in him, does a jig with your funny bone. Murphy, like Robin Williams, is a genius of quicksilver mimicry. Throughout the movie, he does his off-the-cuff impersonations: a raspy old Jewish guy, an effete WASP, a mechanized phone-sex operator. At one point he sits across from a yuppie lobbyist whom he’s eager to date (Victoria Rowell) and reads off his half of the conversation from a computer screen (his assistant, seated at another terminal, is feeding him dialogue). Murphy savors the dull bureaucratic jargon like fine wine. He turns the very boringness of what he’s saying into a wry surge of silliness.
For the most part, though, he’s riffing in a vacuum. There isn’t a gram of satirical thrust to The Distinguished Gentleman’s portrait of congressional hucksters. As portrayed here, they’re just jowly cardboard stooges in expensive suits. Directed by Jonathan Lynn (My Cousin Vinny), this is a sterile, joyless comedy, photographed in ugly, made-for-video close-up and featuring a farce plot so laborious it suggests John Landis on a bad day.
Murphy arrives in Washington and learns that Congress is a racket, a corrupt thicket of perks and PACs. The movie has been calculated to tap into America’s election-year cynicism regarding congressional gridlock. Yet its ”rebellious” posture seems based on a marketing survey: The film has all the freshness and conviction of one of George Bush’s late-in-the-campaign speeches about how he, not Clinton, was the candidate for change. Like Sister Act, another product of the Disney assembly line, The Distinguished Gentleman takes a reasonably amusing high-concept premise — Mr. Murphy Goes to Washington — and proceeds to squeeze the life out of it. Sister Act, at least, had some spirited diversions — the songs, the sardonic performances of the supporting nuns. All The Distinguished Gentleman has is Eddie Murphy doing his best to be the life of the party. By the end of the movie you wish he would just go to another party. C