The Distinguished Gentleman
is a 1992 comedy film starring Eddie Murphy
as Thomas Jefferson Johnson
, a professional con man
from Florida who discovers that he shares part of his name
with a recently deceased
Congressman. When he learns that people will give him money to run for office and money to vote for things, and he gets to keep it all, "Jeff Johnson" embarks on the biggest con of his life.
When he arrives in Washington, though, he discovers that he's small potatoes compared to the corruption that is endemic to politics, and his long-buried conscience
leads him to embark on another con: to expose the real
fraud in America.
- Alter Kocker: Johnson claims to have learned his fluent Yiddish from old Jewish folks on the beaches of Miami, and pretends to be such a person while campaigning in a Jewish neighborhood. In one meet-and-greet, he flatters an old Jewish lady by talking to her in Yiddish.
- Black Comedy: While the obvious comedy is a black man scamming his way into Congress by pretending to be a popular, dead, white guy, there is a much darker and more serious use of satire when he gets there and sees just how corrupt the place is.
- The Con: Johnson's basic scam, seen in the opening, is to bait a prominent man with illicit sex, then have the woman's "husband" or "lover" show up and blackmail him with exposure — an old con known as the "badger game". Johnson takes it a step further by showing up in the guise of an FBI agent and arresting the "con artists". He'll hustle them right off to jail, but the mark is going to be subpoenaed as a witness. This, of course, is exactly what the mark doesn't want, so he "bribes" Johnson to keep his name out of the press.
- Engineered Public Confession: Johnson's scheme is to get the crooked Congressmen to discuss their backroom deal in front of a video camera, then play it back in front of a full session of the House of Representatives.
- Everyone Has Standards: While Johnson is not evil, he is unquestionably a criminal. Then he goes to Washington and meets the real criminals. This horrifies him so much that he decides to expose them at the cost of his own career.
- Green Aesop: The cancer victim's mother who accosts Johnson believes that high-voltage power lines near their neighborhood are responsible and wants him to vote for an environmental bill regulating them.
- Jerkass Fašade: At first, Johnson treats being in Congress as a lark and happily acts like what he thinks a stereotypical Congressman should be, voting frivolously, dissing constituents, and sucking up to lobbyists. Then it starts to hit home that he's toying with real people's lives.
- Littlest Cancer Patient: The event that finally breaks through Johnson's Jerkass Fašade is when a cancer-stricken child and her mother show up in his office. It takes this for him to realize that he was elected to represent people who place their hopes and dreams in him.
- Magical Security Cam: Averted and Played for Laughs — Johnson places his video camera right out in the open, but sideways so that his marks won't realize it's turned on. Then everyone has to tilt their heads when he plays it back until someone gets the bright idea to turn the TV on its side.
- Meaningless Meaningful Words: Johnson's acceptance speech consists of mindless, shamelessly plagiarized drivel that the crowd eats with a spoon.
- Named After Somebody Famous: Johnson's mother named him "Thomas Jefferson" in the hopes that he'd accomplish something important in his life. Ironically, he actually does.
- Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: The first time he votes, Johnson doesn't even bother to find out what it's for, since he's having too much fun just being in Congress. On a whim, he pushes "No". Then he encounters a public tour whose guide asks him about his vote and confronts him with the knowledge that it was a welfare bill. Oops.
- One Steve Limit: Invoked by Johnson when he realizes that he shares a name with a recently deceased Congressman. As long as he doesn't show any pictures of himself, people will just tick off the box on the ballot.
- Out with a Bang: At the same party where Jefferson Johnson (the protagonist) is pulling his con, Jeff Johnson (the Congressman) has a heart attack while boffing his secretary.
- Pyrrhic Victory: To expose the crooked Congressmen, Johnson must admit to being a crook himself, presumably ending his career, although the ending leaves open the possibility that he might survive this.
- Screw the Rules, I Have Money!:
- In a darkly satirical take on the trope, a lobbyist helps Johnson pick his positions by telling him about the money that various interest groups will offer him for espousing them.
- The back-room deal that Johnson exposes involves influence peddling and bribery: a Congressman selling his vote against the environmental bill in exchange for illicit campaign donations.
- Viewers Are Goldfish: Invoked by Johnson, whose campaign counts on the fact that people are used to voting for "Jeff Johnson" and won't remember that he died.
- Villain with Good Publicity: Johnson is utterly flabbergasted to discover that Congressmen (some of them, at least) are getting elected by people who have absolutely no idea about the awful stuff they pull behind the scenes.
- Yiddish as a Second Language: Johnson learned it on the beaches of Miami as a kid, and he uses it in his campaign to attract the Jewish vote.