MY FELLOW AMERICANS (1996) *** 1/4
No, it's not the Holidays spirit that makes me give "My Fellow Americans" three and a quarter stars, a rating higher than those of other reviewers. It's simply because the movie is more funny and entertaining than anything else I have seen this season.
Its brio never flags. "MFA" opens with the acceptance speech of G. O. P. President-elect Kramer (Jack Lemmon), a silly peroration that includes his trademark "Dreams are like children. . . " speech. Standing behind him are his wife (Lauren Bacall) and his Vice-President Haney (Dan Aykroyd). Cut to the next elections, won by Democrat Matt Douglas (James Garner), and the following ones which elect the Republican ticket of Haney and Matthews (John Heard).
Kramer and Douglas are still alive and well. Kramer is a tightwad who helps himself to the vodka of hotel-room minibars, then fills the miniature bottles with water, as his spouse delivers mordant comments. He adds to his income with speechmaking that invariably includes his "Dreams are like children. . . " refrain, no matter what the public is. His hilarious appearance before a crowd of Japanese insurance people is crowned by an unwilling dance with a man in a giant panda suit. Kramer also writes books, probably not as money-makers but, we learn later in a slightly touching confession, as reminders to others that he is still around.
Douglas looks considerably younger, more fit and smarter than Kramer, but like him, during his tenure, he went for expediency rather than ideals and principles. The hallmark of now divorcing Douglas is total dedication to womanizing. Listlessly, he is now writing his biography. . . and sleeping with his blonde editor, truly a President's Choice beauty. I bet you that among the 90% politically incorrect male audiences, her looks will exonerate the mega-philandering of Douglas. Within the White House, he knows too about the "Kennedy Door," a secret escape for Presidents in compromising situations.
A possible scandal (code-named Olympia) surfaces. It's about Presidential kickbacks to current President Aykroyd, when years ago he was Lemmon's Vice-Prexy. To cover his tracks and save his skin ( stronger words are actually used), Aykroyd and cohorts dream up a cover-up that will put the blame on Lemmon, then Garner. Yet both men, whatever their many faults, are innocent of this Olympiagate.
Complications result in an assassination and a plot whereby the National Security Agency is charged with killing both ex-Presidents. Not to reveal the ever-inventive twists, the two men, while loathing each other and constantly waging a war of insults, somehow find themselves stranded, penniless and hunted down.
The film becomes a sort of road-movie as the odd couple flee from danger. Hitherto insulated from real life (even former Presidents are shadowed by the Secret Service), they encounter a little bit of the "Real America. " These glimpses include getting involved with celebrity impersonators; meeting a traveling, jobless family (an update of "The Grapes of Wrath"?); stumbling on a Gay Parade complete with "Over the Rainbow" played in march-time; getting helped by "Dykes on Bikes"; sharing a truckload of illegal immigrants; stealing into Lemmon's Presidental Library, and much more. All the while, killers under wonderfully diabolical Colonel Tanner (he of the scary, impassive face) are after them.
Those peripatetic conditions may remind you of "Sullivan's Travels" by the great satirist Preston Sturges. Or of Frank Capra's beloved "little people who speak out" --the masses that those in power know nothing about. Wisely, both satirical and pathetic elements are kept down to fit both the film's lightness and its awareness that today's public has a much more jaundiced, unromantic and cynical perception of politicians.
Instead, the concentration is on Lemmon and Garner. No matter whom they play, they are two of the most likable actors in the history of American cinema. The script and direction do not sentimentalize them, in fact they keep a certain distance from them. Yet there is a kind of sympathy for the bumbling Lemmon, who gets to look so much like a hungry bum that a kindly African-American cafe owner offers him free pie --and addresses him as "old man. " There is separate and equal sympathy for the fast-talking, fast-thinking Garner who at age 68 is still a charmer.
The ill-assorted duo make beautifully ironic music together. It is preordained that some variant of friendship will eventually emerge, somewhat along the lines of the Lemmon-Walter Matthau comedies or the ever-funny Matthau-GeorgeBurns "The Sunshine Boys. " Yet cleverly, when at one point Lemmon says "Let's stop talking. We're about to bond. I hate this," he defuses the bond issue.
Among the joys of the film is the smart casting and use of supporting roles. Quality counts, not the length of onscreen time. No performer is wasted. All are good: Bacall's ex-First Lady; Wilford Brimley's political mover and shaker; Sela Ward as a witty, influential TV personality; a Marilyn Monroe-ish girl who, believing that Garner is a President Douglas look-alike, tells him she had slept with the real Douglas (her report is not flattering). The other performers too are just right.
John Hurt as the current Vice-President is a howl. Whether or not you read Nixonian, Bushian, Clintonian, even Johnsonian allusions in the main characters (LBJ was the most vivid utterer of "My Fellow Amurrricans"), Hurt's Dan Quayle impersonation is such a four-star, true imitation that it goes well beyond the spoofing stage.
At a droll Presidential golf game, Hurt's hits an African -American man with a ball. He solicitously tenders several gauche, unconsciously insulting apologies. One is about "Your people" who can't play golf because they don't belong to the good clubs. He tops this with "You people are so good at so many sports that you should leave one [golf] for us whites. "
Technically, the studio reconstructions of Washington and the uses of location shooting are impeccable. They could fool you. What does not fool you are the several improbabilities -- but then this is neither a sentimental nor a serious film with a message. There is no need to apply rationality and logic to a movie-movie that is overall a comedy plus part-mystery, part-thriller, part-slapstick, part-expose. And part-fantasy, except for its full-time raunchy (and most amusing) language which those in the know will tell you was and is quite realistic among most of our elected leaders and their subalterns.