FILM / Chameleon confidence required

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JONATHAN LYNN'S Yes Minister showed the British body politic as a shadowy world of eminences grises and sly impositions. Now the director has gone to Washington with The Distinguished Gentleman, a gaily-coloured, red, white and blue sort of place with nothing subtle about it at all. Eddie Murphy plays one of his brash imposters, Thomas Jefferson Johnson, a small-time con artist who has the same name as his local congressman. When the latter prematurely expires in the midst of his re-election campaign, Murphy realises that the congressional scamfest of honoraria and outright backhanders will enable him to swindle big-time (and legally too). He runs for office on the Johnson ticket and is voted in forthwith on 'name recognition'.

The producers of the film claim Murphy as a new Jimmy Stewart, an Everyman for the 1990s; with his darting grins to camera and conspiratorial, honk-honk laugh, Murphy's a past master at seducing his audience. A recent Variety survey showed that, over the past 10 years, he's the biggest draw in opening a movie, still, despite relative flops, more effective than Big Arnie. And this is his best performance for quite a while.

It's noticeable that he achieves that universal appeal by downplaying his race; the inevitable Big Issue that turns the ruthless hustler into an idealistic softie is an ecological rather than a racial one. And the story's a showcase for his famous talent for mimicry; one scene shows his van on the campaign trail - in Chinatown, the accent issuing over the loudspeaker is Confucian; outside a bagel shop, it segues effortlessly into kosher; in the black suburbs it's pure soul. Murphy can blend in everywhere - rather than a black actor, he's a chameleon one.

Scripted by Marty Kaplan, erstwhile speechwriter to Walter Mondale, the screenplay is by turns very broad (many jokes at the expense of the arch-villain, who rejoices in the name Dick Dodge) and quite cutting. There's a good scene where Murphy riffs a convincing victory speech out of a string of cliches - 'Ask not what you can do for your country . . There is nothing to fear but fear itself . . And,' (George Bush's lame contribution to the Book of Great Political Aphorisms bringing up the rear), 'in conclusion, read my lips'. Confidence and toothy presentation are more important than what you have to say.

The film also delivers a salvo against the abuses of the lobby system (which Bill Clinton has pledged to reform), though this is less effective; Murphy the Capitol Hill greenhorn learns that, if he opposes medical malpractice suits, the doctors will fund him; if he supports it, why, the legal establishment will back him all the way. The scene doesn't say that politicians are corrupt, but they can follow their conscience, because someone will grease their palm for it anyway.

This is - like Lynn's last film, My Cousin Vinny - a little too long, especially when Murphy's sudden access of compassion turns the picture into Mr Johnson Goes to Washington. But I have to confess to enjoying The Distinguished Gentleman, the sort of likeable, dumb-ass comedy that (judging by the press show) critics laugh at uproariously, then sniff at in print.

Derek Jarman's Wittgenstein is also a comedy of sorts - a brisk magical mystery tour through the philosopher's life and works. It aims to put the wit back into Wittgenstein, the man who once said he'd like to have written a treatise consisting entirely of jokes, except that he had no sense of humour (a comment whose very wryness seems to give the lie to itself).

The tour takes in, inter alia, a rhino, a man from Mars, Austria, the Norwegian fjords and the Russian front (all evoked elliptically in a matte black studio), and the equally exotic world of the Cambridge elite, starring a camp Maynard Keynes in a lilac suit, a foppish Bertrand Russell (Michael Gough), and his mistress Lady Ottoline Morrell (Tilda Swinton in a succession of wagon-wheel hats and neon-colour feather boas). Next to these mayflies, Wittgenstein, with his furrowed brow and tweedy jackets, seems a model of sober integrity.

Surprisingly for a Jarman film, Wittgenstein doesn't present its hero as martyred for his homosexuality, although there are several anachronistic-sounding allusions to his 'infecting' young men with his philosophy. Instead, it sees his anguished pysche as shaped by his Austrian nationality (a birthplace shared with Hitler, he remarks) and, mainly, class. It's a meaty, compassionate portrait.

The film - co-scripted by the Oxford professor Terry Eagleton - is less successful in distilling the essence of Wittgenstein's thought. His final theory of language seems to be that it's a 'culturally learned code' reflecting social prejudice and convention rather than an eternal, natural order. For all the ingenious attempts to illustrate it, you have to work hard at following the thread. But the film is lively, visually forceful and, above all, short (75 minutes) enough to carry you along.

In Forever Young, Mel Gibson is a test pilot whose proposal to his childhood sweetheart freezes on his lips (its message is, 'men should learn to express their feelings to the woman they love'). When an accident sends her into a coma, he volunteers his entire body for the deep-freeze in a secret experiment and, half a century later, emerges for defrosting. The film has at least four major subplots - the one where Mel comes to grips with the microchip world; the one where he meets Jamie Lee Curtis's feisty single mum; the one where Curtis's 10-year-old son finds a surrogate father and learns to land a plane; and the one where the nasty FBI are hot on Gibson's trail. Forever Young can't decide whether it's a thriller, a romantic weepy or a kids' comedy - the constant changes of gear are very noticeable, and the film, unable to gather momentum, seems long and dull.

In Wind, boy loses America's Cup (and girl), boy goes off to lick his wounds and design a spanking new yacht, boy wins back America's Cup. The shipboard sequences are thrilling, although the film fails completely to explain anything about either sailing tactics or the nuts and bolts of building the boat. Only for diehard sailing nuts and those who reckon that 'you're skipper material' and 'sometimes we pay too high a price for our dreams' are great lines of movie dialogue.