Public deception is a common theme in popular cinema.
Many movies on this topic initially flirt with a cruel sense of humour, eliciting our sympathy for slick con artists as they trump the world's suckers. Yet, unfailingly, they start back-pedalling furiously about half way through, in order to arrive at reassuring displays of noble sentiment.
The Distinguished Gentleman is, within its own terms, a satisfying entertainment of this type. As a formulaic vehicle for star Eddie Murphy, it shows off his usual quick-change mimicry, and his penchant for jibes at the expense of oppressed social groups.
Also, and curiously for a guy who likes to talk dirty so often, it is an utterly chaste film – as if the prospect of actual sexual relations would blow Eddie's immaculate cool completely.
However, as a modern version of Capra's Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939), this comedy is quite captivating. Murphy plays a con man who is elected into Congress purely on the basis of the average voter's stupidity, with the sole aim of making easy money. By exploiting his politically correct status as the token black man, he wheedles his way onto the lucrative Power and Industry committee.
Eventually, of course, both he and the movie develop a social conscience, and end up fighting the cause of the common people. This is quite a somersault considering that Murphy milks his biggest and most wicked laughs from outsmarting every slow-witted hick in the universe.
But The Distinguished Gentleman pulls off this reversal with a con man's feel-good smile.
© Adrian Martin August 1993