Everyone who worked on My Fellow Americans nicknamed it “Grumpy Old Presidents.” As the “odd couple” of unhappily retired heads of state, Jack Lemmon and James Garner are totally hilarious. Between the guffaws is a pointed commentary on the disconnect between our “fellow Americans” and the politicians in whom we’ve entrusted our hopes. Funny when it was made almost two decades ago, My Fellow Americans is even funnier today — and just as troubling.
The film was released in late 1996, meaning the inspiration for the presidential characters was taken from contemporary headlines. The penny-pinching fuddy-duddy Republican President Russell P. Kramer (Jack Lemmon at his neurotic best) is a dead ringer for 41st president George H. W. Bush (1989-1993). The skirt-chasing scalawag Democratic President Matt Douglas, is, of course, 42nd president Bill Clinton (1993-2001).
In the movie, both former presidents served only one term and are still devastated about getting booted out of the Oval Office. What happened to the power they craved and all the perks they loved so much? Where’s the durn spotlight? Bored out of their minds in their separate exiles, they turn to speechifying at corporate events and signing books written by ghostwriters.
Lurking in the background of President Kramer’s administration was his sleazy vice president William Haney (Dan Aykroyd), who now, curses, the President. In his shadow hides a Dan Quayle wannabe, Vice President Ted Matthews (John Heard), a pretty boy who pretends to be stupid. Haney wants to squelch an ugly bribery scandal by blaming it on his former boss. Brainless Secret Service agents set out to wreak havoc on President Kramer’s meticulous lunch records that would prove his innocence.
After escaping an exploding helicopter, the two unprotected, and often unrecognized, private citizens set off on a road trip across America. Or rather part of America, mostly including North Carolina, on the way to Cuyahoga Falls outside Cleveland, to the Kramer Presidential Library. Their zinger hurling escalates with each new danger — the closer to annihilation they get, the more we laugh.
For perhaps the first time in their lives, the men meet real-life Americans — such as the couple who lives in their van because national economic policies robbed them of their home. The former presidents are caught in a raid of illegal immigrants. And they end up marching in a gay-rights parade in Asheville. (Remember, this was thought up almost 20 years ago, and the same issues are still with us.)
One aspect of the film that isn’t prescient is the role of women. Other than her 11 lines, Lauren Bacall, as former First Lady Margaret Kramer, doesn’t do much, and she’s the most prominent woman in the cast. No female senators, no First Family daughters, not even an annoyed wife for President Matthews. (Obviously no one gave a thought to Hillary Clinton having a political future.)
The few minor female characters include a journalist in a form-fitting sheath, a world-weary truck driver with an eye for fine watches, a terrified immigrant in a drainpipe, and the White House chef, played by Esther Rolle, who sneaks our guys into their old domain in a truckload of vegetables.
As My Fellow Americans proves, society doesn’t change overnight. It takes time and determination and the decision to vote. Meanwhile, laughing our heads off about our baffling political challenges is better than tearing our hairs out.
Marcianne Miller is a member of SEFCA (Southeast Film Critics Assn) and NCFCA (North Carolina Film Critics Assn.) E-mail her at email@example.com.
Showing at the Hendersonville Film Society, Sunday, November 15, at 2pm in the auditorium at Lake Pointe Landing in Hendersonville, behind Epic Cinemas.
To be put on the mailing list to get schedule and info, call HFS Director Elaine Ciampi at 828-697-7310.