Saturday, May 20, 2017

"MY FELLOW AMERICANS" (1996) Review




"MY FELLOW AMERICANS" (1996) Review

When "MY FELLOW AMERICANS", was first released, I found myself wondering if Jack Lemmon and James Garner had ever co-starred in a movie or television production together. After checking several websites, including the IMDb, I discovered that this 1996 political comedy was the only production in which they worked together. How sad. 

Directed by Peter Segal, "MY FELLOW AMERICANS" told the story of two former U.S. Presidents and long time political rivals - Republican Russell Kramer of Ohio and Democratic Matt Douglas of Indiana - who find themselves caught up in a political scandal called "Olympia" that originated with Kramer's former Vice-President, the current President William Haney of Texas and a defense contractor named Charlie Reynolds. The story began with Kramer spending his time writing cookbooks and speaking at various inconsequential functions and Douglas in the middle of writing his memoirs and dealing with a divorce. The Democratic National Committee chairman, Joe Hollis, asked Douglas to investigate "Olympia" in return for consideration as a future presidential candidate. Kramer discovers that Haney and the latter's Chief of Staff, Carl Witnaur, are trying to frame him for the scandal. Reynolds finally contacts Douglas during a book convention at Washington D.C.'s Union Station in order to confess. Unfortunately, he is assassinated by government thugs commanded by NSA agent Colonel Paul Tanner. Both Douglas and Kramer, who was also at the convention, stumble across Reynolds' dead body. Before the pair can confront Kramer about the scandal and Reynolds, they find themselves being targeted by Tanner and the NSA. Kramer and Douglas are forced to put aside their personal animosity and journey to the former's presidential museum in Ohio to find evidence that would exonerate him and place more suspicion on Haney - while keeping a few steps ahead of Tanner's thugs.

"MY FELLOW AMERICANS" is not exactly regarded as one of the best films in either Jack Lemmon and James Garner's filmography. Not by film critics and not by me. I am not claiming that it is a terrible film. But to be honest, "MY FELLOW AMERICANS" was not exactly an exceptional film. There are certain aspects of it that made it a rather silly at times. For me, the worst aspect of the movie was that director Peter Segal and the screenwriters sometimes presented the humor in a "vaudeville" style in which the jokes came out at a pace that struck me as too fast to be appreciated. And the jokes given to some of the supporting cast struck me as a bit lame. Although the movie did establish Douglas' penchant for finding ways to avoid his Secret Service detail (yes . . . former presidents are still guarded by the Secret Service), it never established how Kramer managed to avoid his detail at Union Station before he and Douglas found Charlie Reynolds' dead body.

And yet . . . years after I first saw "MY FELLOW AMERICANS", I still finding it very entertaining. Despite the occasional lame jokes, I still consider it to be a hilarious movie. Not all of the jokes are lame. In fact, a good number of them struck me as rather sharp and funny:

"Oh, yeah, I'm about to share my coffee with the Washington Love Machine. No dice. You could spit in a Petri dish and start a whole new civilization." - Russell Kramer to Matt Douglas

Matt Douglas: A cookbook. He [Kramer] wrote a cookbook. How dare he?
Joanna: Well, you know, when he was President, he did cook for his guests all the time.
Matt Douglas: That's not the point. Did George Washington write a book called "Your Wooden Teeth and You?" Did William Howard Taft write "Thirty Days To A Slimmer Ass?" It's shameful, just shameful.

"Don't do that with the liquor, Russ. It's so... George Bush." - Margaret Kramer to Russell Kramer

Matt Douglas (at the funeral of a former president): You're a whore. Admit it. Admit you're a big whore. Go ahead.
Russell Kramer: Name three women from the District of Columbia that you didn't bang when you were in office - what am I talking about? Name one.
Matt Douglas: Screw you.
Russell Kramer: Blow me.
[Rifles fire]


It was not just the one-liners that made "MY FELLOW AMERICANS" a lot of fun to watch. One, the movie featured a road trip that stretched from North Carolina to Cleveland, Ohio and back to Washington D.C. And I am just a sucker for road trips. And two, this road trip was made by two men who have loathed each other for years and were forced to work together to bring down a corrupt Presidential administration . . . while evading a group of lethal government thugs. Three, the road trip also forced the two men to escape the political bubble of Washington D.C. and become acquainted with the country and the people that populated it. Which means, this movie also featured some good old-fashioned character development. This was especially the case when Kramer and Douglas encountered an illegal immigrant and a marcher/trombonist in a West Virginia Gay Pride parade, who both helped the pair evade Tanner's murderous thugs; and a family that found itself homeless and jobless, thanks to their administration policies and forced to move to a new location for a much-needed job. In fact, the two ex-presidents' encounter with this family provided a better lesson on the futility of American politicians than any political commentator or historian has ever done.

Most of all, "MY FELLOW AMERICANS" benefited from the performances from a first-rate cast. The movie featured some amusing performances from Esther Rolle, who portrayed a White House cook; Wilford Brimley as the DNC's wily chairman; Conchata Farrell as a sardonic truck driver conveying immigrant illegals; a very young Michael Peña as a sweet and charming illegal immigrant who helped the two former Presidents evade the NSA; Tom Everett as the single-minded NSA agent leading the search for the presidential pair; Marg Helgenberger as Douglas' charming and intelligent book editor; Sela Ward as a sharp and witty journalist investigating the Olympia scandal; Bradley Whitford as President Haney's sleazy Chief of Staff; Jack Kehler and Connie Ray as the generous and homeless couple who gave Douglas and Kramer a ride.

There were performances that really caught my attention. One came from Everett McGill, who gave an intense performance as the ruthless NSA agent Colonel Paul Tanner. Lauren Bacall gave a very witty and charming performance as former First Lady Margaret Kramer. Jeff Yagher was both charming and delightful as the gay parade trombonist, whose real identity proved to be even more surprising. And Dan Ackroyd was deliciously sardonic and slick as the corrupt President Haney. But aside from the two leads, the funniest performance came from John Heard, who had me rolling on the floor with laughter as Haney's dimwitted Vice-President Ted Matthews, who had a talent for saying the wrong thing . . . at the wrong time. 

But the stars of the movie were our two leads, Jack Lemmon and James Garner. Earlier, I had commented that it was sad that "MY FELLOW AMERICANS" was the only time they had worked together. It was no comment on the movie itself. I had recently learned that Walter Matthau was supposed to be Lemmon's co-star in this film (as he had been in the past). But Matthau was ill at the time and the filmmakers cast James Garner to take his place. And it is sad that the two actors had only worked with each other once for they were not only hilarious together, they managed to form a first-rate screen team. Both actors had been around since the 1950s and it took over forty years for them to do a movie together? What a shame! Lemmon was fabulous as the overly frugal former Republican president Russell Kramer, who fears being left behind and forgotten after his four years in office. Playing yang to Lemmon's yin was James Garner, who gave a delicious performance as the sardonic former Democratic president Matt Douglas, a sharp-tongued ladies' man who spends more time finding ways to evade his Secret Service detail than making a life after his four years in office.

"MY FELLOW AMERICANS" also featured a nice soundtrack that featured a breezy score created by William Ross. The latter also included some very entertaining songs from the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Elvis Presley, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Stevie Wonder and John Mellencamp. However, what I really enjoyed was Julio Macat's colorful photography, which I thought did justice to the movie's North Carolina and Washington D.C. locations.

Although I would never regard "MY FELLOW AMERICANS" as a cinematic masterpiece, let alone, a comedic one. There were times when the jokes moved too fast, along with the movie's pacing. But I cannot deny that the movie featured some first-rate humor and nail-biting action sequences, thanks to Peter Segal's direction. More importantly, "MY FELLOW AMERICANS" featured some strong characterizations, thanks to the screenwriters and first-rate performances from a cast led by Jack Lemmon and James Garner.

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