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If it does nothing else, the election-year comedy My Fellow Americans will probably remind us that most citizens now regard their political leaders with the contempt usually reserved for serial killers, child molesters and news reporters. Hollywood always trails the social mood of the country by a year or two because it takes a while to finance, assemble and package the "product." So by the time a ham-handed farce like this one shows us a pair of antagonistic, trash-talking former U.S. presidents sneaking back into the White House under a load of groceries in the cook's station wagon, we can be pretty sure the voters no longer feel like saluting their chief executive.

"Screw you," the deposed Democrat in this movie tells his old electoral adversary.

"Blow me," replies the ousted Republican.
If this brand of discourse doesn't exactly inspire the populace like one of Roosevelt's fireside chats or JFK's charge to "ask not what your country can do for you," it certainly reflects a national cynicism that got rolling in the days of Watergate and hits a higher gear every time Paula Jones or the Whitewater investigator fires a new salvo at Pennsylvania Avenue.

The presence of lovable Jack Lemmon as fictional ex-president Russell P. Kramer (R-Ohio) and cuddly James Garner as ex-president Matt Douglas (D-Indiana) probably means that the makers of Americans intend it to be a gentler, more affectionate movie than it actually is--a kind of barbed, populist Frank Capra comedy for our time, even. But underneath the jokes, this thing is nasty without being particularly dark, and every time it tries to get heartwarming, it feels halfhearted instead.

The screenplay, fashioned by more screenwriters (three) than Nixon had vice presidents, ranges from lunkheaded to far-fetched. To wit: When a scandal heating up inside the White House threatens to implicate both Kramer and Douglas, the old enemies are thrown together against their will, a helicopter the current president has supposedly sent for them explodes in the middle of nowhere, and this prickly Odd Couple is left to fend for itself, blue-suited but penniless, out in the "real America"--a place they barely know. Soon enough, they learn from disaffected citizens on trains, in trucks and in coffeeshops just what a lousy job they did running the country.

Because the reign of conspiracy theories shows no sign of abating, these nagging, bickering Sunshine Boys are also being pursued across the fruited plain by teams of rogue government assassins. The only thing missing is a platoon of space aliens. The thing's already got an Elvis impersonator. All hail director Peter Segal for that stroke of originality.

A political comedy/road movie this broad must, of course, address the "character issue," and it does so in spades. Garner's vain, preening Douglas is a tireless philanderer in the Kennedy/ Clinton mold, and by his own admission, his four years in office were full of Ford-like caretaking; Lemmon's crotchety Kramer is as forgetful as Reagan and as cheap as Coolidge, and in his retirement, he shills for Japanese insurance companies and dashes off presidential cookbooks to score a fast buck. His wife (Lauren Bacall) is a sharp-tongued manipulator.

As the movie would have it, the combined IQs of these guys might qualify them for janitorial work in the Senate Office Building. Kramer doesn't know how to drive a car, and when the two goofballs hitch a ride with a homeless family, Douglas upbraids the husband after the poor guy mangles a couple of historical facts. In the movie's most artificial act of revenge against politician insensitivity, both presidents are summarily thrown out of the car.

In other words, our presidents are not only out of touch with reality, they're mean-spirited jerks, too. This is the stuff of comedy.

There's more. The incumbent president (Dan Aykroyd)--who sports a distinct Southern accent--is a scheming weasel, and his vice president (John Heard) is a devious, bungling moron. Not only that, every press secretary and White House aide in this alleged satire is corrupt to the bone. Only Rita (Esther Rolle), the White House cook, who for some reason still likes both of her former bosses, is on the up-and-up.

Of course, it wouldn't do for a movie this "commercial" to slide by without a little processed redemption. So in the end, the crusty, unlikable and not very funny anti-heroes of the piece wind up preventing a national disaster by literally riding onto the south lawn of the White House together, on horseback. Friends at last, awakened finally to the needs of the people, they are now a couple of Capra knights who have nothing but the good of the country at heart. Presidential fantasies like Dave (White House double proves better man than the original) and The American President (widowed chief executives need love, too) played enjoyable parlor games with the highest office in the land; My Fellow Americans first tells us that it's a bad joke, then reverses field and says that everything's okay after all.

And you thought Clinton vs. Dole was a farce.

My Fellow Americans. Screenplay by E. Jack Kaplan & Richard Chapman and Peter Tolan. Directed by Peter Segal. With Jack Lemmon, James Garner, Dan Aykroyd and Lauren Bacall.

 
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