Follow TV Tropes


Film / The Distinguished Gentleman

Go To

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.


  • Actually, I Am Him: When Celia shows up at Johnson's reception for the new congressman, she goes right up to him first and asks where the congressman is, then goes on to bad-mouth him a bit before he reveals his congressman's pin (which he deliberately hide behind a clipboard).
  • 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.
  • Arson, Murder, and Lifesaving: During the reception party for first-time elected congresmen, Johnson is pestered by two other congresmen, who list the effort they went through to get elected, while he just filled on the popular name to get voted in... and congratulate him for such smart move.
  • At Least I Admit It: When Dodge tries to expose Johnson as a conman, Johnson admits to it, but retorts that his history of cons aren't any different than the dirty dealing that goes on in Congress.
  • Becoming the Mask: Jeff Johnson starts out only pretending to be interested in serving the public's interest, but starts to wholeheartedly take a stand against the endemic corruption.
  • 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.
  • Embarrassing Middle Name: Actually a plot point. Johnson doesn't like that his full name is Thomas Jefferson Johnson, due to his namesake being a slave owner. However, once he realizes that the dead Senator he wants to replace was named Jeff Johnson, and his name is technically also Jeff Johnson, he hatches his scheme.
  • 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. This triggers his long-dormant conscience and starts him down the path of redemption.
  • Honey Trap: 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.
  • Inanimate Competitor: Played with. The set-up to the main plot is that a long-time Floridian Congressman named Jeff Johnson has died close to voting season. In his absence, con artist Thomas Jefferson Johnson (using an alteration of his name) takes the late congressman's spot on the ballot, on the basis that Johnson's name recognition alone will be enough to earn him the seat. And it works.
  • Kansas City Shuffle: Johnson's specialty. Both his normal con and the Engineered Public Confession he sets up are this in a nutshell. His Honey Trap is effective enough, but then he comes in and "catches" the other two members of his group, explaining the con to his mark and letting them think that they're in control again. In the confession, he causes the chairman and lobbyist to panic by claiming to have taped their earlier conversation, even bringing the camera into the room with him, and acts defeated when they discover it's a bluff. Of course, he doesn't mention that this camera is rolling...
  • Littlest Cancer Patient: The event that finally breaks through Johnson's jerkass facade 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 Money, I Have Rules!: When faced with the choice of keeping the cushy job and the steady income it generates in "donations" or actually making a difference, Johnson decides to expose bunch of corrupt politicians. Even if this potentially means ruining himself and making it impossible to be a conman ever again, too, since now all of America knows his face.
  • 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.
  • Sleazy Politician: Almost everyone. The amount of honest or idealistic politicians within the film can be counted on the fingers of one hand. And they are just grinded down by the rest without much effort.
  • Suspiciously Specific Sermon: Downplayed, as it is deliberately aimed at Johnson. When Elijah Hawkins is giving a sermon about the importance of living honest life, he's not only talking directly to Johnson (sitting at the service with his girlfriend), but maintains eye contact when delivering his lines.
  • Trope Breaker: Thanks to Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, the entire Dead Person Impersonation scheme Johnson pulls to get elected would be impossible to do, as he would have to present his face.
  • 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.
  • Voice Changeling: Everybody in Johnson's group is skilled at this, especially Johnson himself, who is shown putting on no fewer than five different voices while campaigning for office.
  • 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.
  • You Remind Me of X: When Elijah Hawkins calls Tom out on his con-artist ways, Tom is about to make typical snarky remark, but stops.
    Tom: You know, just then you reminded me of my father. ... He used to say I was a scumbag, too.