My Fellow Americans

Friday December 20, 1996

     If you suspect that U.S. presidents spend more time thinking about who they are and how they can exploit their job than on running the office, your cynicism will jibe nicely with that of Peter Segal's "My Fellow Americans." Of the four egocentric presidents we meet in the course of the movie, two are feather-nesting felons, one is an abject whiner and the last is a womanizer who seems to have gotten elected by kissing babes.
     And this is not a true story.
     "My Fellow Americans" is a gang-written comedy that doesn't have a political bone in its body, or much evidence of a funny one, either. It's an "Odd Couple"-style buddy movie about of a pair of mutually loathing ex-presidents forced to team up against a White House conspiracy to have them killed.
     Judging by the amount of up-yours! dialogue, the script was almost certainly written with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in mind. And Lemmon is on hand, as that penny-pinching whiner Russell P. Kramer (R-Ohio). But what would be the Matthau role, arrogant lecher Matthew Douglas (D-Mass.), is filled instead by James Garner.
     The switch is not bad. Garner is a good light-comedy actor, too seldom seen in film, and he adds elements of charm, physical stature and good looks that make him far better suited to his Kennedyesque character than the rumpled Matthau would be.
     Nevertheless, the movie plays exactly like the half dozen Lemmon-Matthau movies, with two contrasting personalities badgering each other while fighting to conceal pangs of affection. Think of "My Fellow Americans" as "Grumpy Ex-Presidents," and you've got the picture.
     When we join them, Kramer and Douglas, career rivals who have beaten each other in back-to-back presidential races, are deep into post-power depression, whiling away their time writing irrelevant books and trying to figure out how they lost faith with the people. Meanwhile, current President William Haney (Dan Aykroyd) is facing even bigger troubles: An old kickback scheme is about to resurface, and his advisors are offering to cook some books and deflect the blame to Kramer.
     After some incredulous quick twists and turns, Kramer and Douglas find themselves stranded in the backwoods of the Deep South, trying to avoid armies of pinstriped agents and get back to Washington to blow the whistle. On the way, they'll meet true citizens of every stripe, including gay marchers and lesbian bikers, and endure almost every cliche of the on-the-road buddy movie--all the while hurling adolescent slams at each other that would amuse only Beavis and Butt-head.
     Why, after the Nixon tapes and the Kennedy exposes, anyone would be shocked to hear presidents swear or show open lust is a mystery, but we'll pause here to acknowledge this truly historical moment in political film comedy:
     "My Fellow Americans" is the second movie in a week to wring a joke out of JFK's White House assignations. In "Mars Attacks!," a leering staff assistant guides a voluptuous woman (in fact, a Martian in drag) to the "Kennedy Room," which is equipped with stereo and a circular bed. Here, Garner's President Douglas confides to Kramer that he'd enjoyed quickies behind the hidden "Kennedy door" in the presidential study.
     There are, amid the pratfalls and penis jokes, a few harmless laughs. The filmmakers haven't inserted a hint of a political message, unless John Heard's imitation of a brain-addled vice president upsets a few Quayle fans. Wasted in the cast are Lauren Bacall as Kramer's sturdy wife and Sela Ward as a Washington TV news personality.


My Fellow Americans, 1996. PG-13, for salty language and innuendo. A Peters Entertainment production, released by Warner Bros. Director Peter Segal. Producer Jon Peters. Executive producers Tracy Barone, Craig Zadan, Neil Meron. Screenplay by E. Jack Kaplan & Richard Chapman, Peter Tolan, based on the story by E. Jack Kaplan & Richard Chapman. Cinematographer Julio Macat. Editor William Kerr. Costumes Betsy Cox. Music William Ross. Production design James Bissell. Art directors Gae Buckley, Michael Rizzo. Set designer Gary Fettis. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes. Jack Lemmon as Russell P. Kramer. James Garner as Matt Douglas. Dan Aykroyd as William Haney. John Heard as Ted Matthews. Wilford Brimley as Joe Hollis.

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