The toothless Mr.-Murphy-goes-to-Washington comedy The Distinguished Gentleman might lead you to question why Hollywood can't make movies about the political process the way it used to movies that were caustic, satirical, fundamentally honest. The answer is that Hollywood never made movies like that. The film industry traditionally shies away from taking sides why alienate half your customers? and the list of political films that matter is tiny. The Manchurian Candidate, The Great McGinty, The Candidate these are blips on the cultural radar, movies that are both particular to their times and that, in their dark comic doubt, apply to our entire democratic experiment.
As writer-director-star of Bob Roberts, Tim Robbins obviously wants to be the latest rude boy on this block. But his cautionary debut falls short of the mark as well. In fact, seen on a video double bill with The Distinguished Gentleman, Bob Roberts offers a dispiriting scenario for the current state of political satire: a lame duck dead in the water. The last election was funnier and more illuminating than either of these movies. And home video's late-to-the-fair release schedule doesn't help: At this point, do you know anyone who isn't burned out on matters electoral besides Ross Perot?
Not that Eddie Murphy wants to tackle sacred cows; he needs a hit too badly. The Distinguished Gentleman is about how a small-time con artist named Thomas Jefferson Johnson takes advantage of the death of longtime congressman Jeff Johnson (James Garner, in a randy cameo) to win election on name recognition and get at all that D.C. pork. The comic premise that the successful crooks end up in government is meant to be daring, but I suspect it lags behind the average viewer's cynicism. Anyway, the filmmakers quickly soften their message: Johnson falls for a fetching pro bono lawyer (Victoria Rowell), discovers the evils of cancer-causing power lines, and sets up a sting to turn the tables on his fat-cat mentors (played by the usual suspects: Kevin McCarthy, Joe Don Baker, and Lane Smith).
The Distinguished Gentleman has its pleasant points, not least of which are breezy performances from Sheryl Lee Ralph as Murphy's cousin in crime and Roc's Charles S. Dutton as the movie's conscience, a hard-fighting black congressman. But Murphy is just too damn nice. The cut-the-crap charisma that made him a star in Trading Places days has been replaced by a measured, doe-eyed friendliness; like Boomerang, this movie is about how he becomes a ''better person.'' If I want that, I'll watch Full House. The Distinguished Gentleman is well suited to video: It plays exactly like a pilot for a sitcom. If he's not careful, that sitcom may star Eddie Murphy.
Bob Roberts pure of intent and noble of cause would never be mistaken for a sitcom; it might have helped, though. There's real potential in this portrait of a demagogue; Robbins has taken the fake-documentary format of Robert % Altman's celebrated HBO series Tanner '88 and merged it with A Face in the Crowd. Pennsylvania senatorial candidate Roberts is a folksinger in the Woody Guthrie/Bob Dylan mold, but the gag is that he's a Yuppie Republican From Hell, leading crowds in singing ''The Wall Street Rap'' while secretly enmeshed in an Iran-contra-type boondoggle. Basically, he's Dan Quayle inflated to boogeyman proportions.
Bob Roberts is at its acrid best when it's observing the process of modern political packaging the way a candidate's image doesn't so much subsume the issues as become the issue. But as the movie goes on, Robbins turns his antihero into a straw man, the embodiment of patriarchal/racist/sexist right-wing power tripping. Bob's antidrug foundation is a cover for S&L rip-offs and drug smuggling; Bob stages his own assassination attempt to win the election; Bob pins the blame on a good-hearted lefty journalist. What starts as razor-sharp satire gets ground down to a bludgeon of agitprop.
It might have worked if Robbins' touch were lighter (or if we weren't already living in a different political era). But I'm afraid the tone is as smug, self-righteous, and condescending as the actor's Oscar speech concerning Haitian refugees. In that case, at least, there are real people who stand to benefit from the attention; Bob Roberts is merely a tribute to Tim Robbins' political beliefs and, as such, it won't even convince the converted (take it from me). I don't know what's more unsettling, the inflexible dogma of Robbins' movie or the hollow inoffensiveness of Murphy's. I do know now, though, that both these guys are closer to real politicians than they might care to admit. The Distinguished Gentleman: C- Bob Roberts: C