The good news is that after his slip with "Boomerang," Eddie Murphy is back in form with "The Distinguished Gentleman," showing off his considerable talent for dialects, voices, impersonations and general comedy shtick. There are moments here when he is hysterically funny.
The bad news is that those moments are few and far between, that the first half-hour of the film is deadly dull and that the screenplay is merely a routine, by-the-numbers fish-out-of-water yarn that is so predictable you may feel like you've seen it all before.
Taking a topical cue from this year's heated election campaigns, "The Distinguished Gentleman" is a cynical '90s variation on "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" with a bit of "The Sting" thrown in toward the end.
The film opens with a veteran Florida congressman named Jeff Johnson who is on the verge of running for his umpteenth term when he unexpectedly dies. (The role of the congressman, by the way, provides a big star with a cameo that should have been a riot but is instead merely tasteless.)
Murphy's character is named Thomas Jefferson Johnson, and since he perceives that a congressman working with lobbyists is the biggest con game of them all and it's legal! he decides to run for the office on a name-recognition campaign. On the late Jeff Johnson's name, of course.
Eventually, he is elected, of course, and heads for Washington with three cronies (Sheryl Lee Ralph, Sonny "Jim" Gaines, Victor Rivers) in tow, sets up shop and takes lessons in skimming off the top from the veteran congressman from his state (Lane Smith).
But it's not hard to recognize that when a young lawyer (Victoria Rowell) catches Johnson's eye he will find his conscience pricked and decide to do the right thing by his constituents.
The premise here is actually a very good one, and the characters are well-played by an expert cast (especially Ralph, Smith, Rowell and Charles S. Dutton as an idealistic congressman who is also a minister). But the screenplay, by former journalist and political speechwriter Marty Kaplan (he also did the script for the movie version of "Noises Off") is in dire need of a rewrite.
As if he recognizes the script problems, director Jonathan Lynn ("My Cousin Vinny") does the smartest thing possible he lets Murphy cut loose whenever the muse strikes, which makes for some very funny business. In fact, had the film been edited tightly so that we were too busy laughing to notice all the silly plotting, it would be much better.
As it is, "The Distinguished Gentleman" is about 45 minutes of amusing material loosely floating around in a flabby two-hour movie.
The film is rated R for profanity, a sex scene and some violence.