The Film and Performance:
A “guilty pleasure” is typically associated with a film or television show that one knows to be poorly made yet somehow the viewer still finds entertainment in watching it. It is a movie or show that is borderline terrible and one would be almost embarrassed to admit to others that they enjoyed it. That is precisely what My Fellow Americans is when watching it. The film is one that doesn’t even take itself seriously. The film’s comedy is overdone. The film lacks any sort of plot that is derived from reality. The vast majority of the film’s talented cast is barely utilized. Even the film’s premise is utterly ridiculous. Yet despite all these flaws, the moviegoer cannot help but be entertained by the film’s lunacy. My Fellow Americans is a film that doesn’t strive to be more than what it is. It was made for light entertainment and that is precisely the delivery one gets when watching this film.
The plot of My Fellow Americans is so contrived and devoid of reality that it is not even remotely possible for the moviegoer to even take the film seriously. The film focuses on Presidents Russell Kramer (Jack Lemmon) and Matt Douglas (James Garner), who both had served a single term as President before losing their reelection. They are Presidents from both sides of the aisle and despise each other. However, they are forced to work together when corrupt President William Haney (Dan Aykroyd) attempts to have them both assassinated to cover up a scandal of his. This results in Presidents Kramer and Douglas embarking on a road trip with the quest of exposing the President’s corruption, all the while meeting the true people of America in the process.
With the movie’s inane plot juxtaposed with the peppy comedy score that rings throughout the entire film, My Fellow Americans is never a film that captivates or gets the moviegoer excited. The movie just is. We watch as these Presidents jump from moving trains, engage in a car chase, even horseback ride to the White House front lawn to save the day. All of these instances are presented so arbitrarily that the moviegoer laughs more at the situation than the actual comedy from the film. Normally this would cause the film to falter and collapse under its own weight. With My Fellow Americans, this sort of absurd comedy is actually what makes the film surprisingly hilarious. It’s the unlikely social situations that makes the movie funny. For instance, in one of the film’s most pivotal scenes, Presidents Kramer and Douglas accidentally end up marching in a gay pride parade with an “All Dorothy Marching Band” and subsequently hitch a ride to Washington D.C. with the ‘Dykes with Bikes’ lesbian motorcycle club. What makes this work is the lunacy of the social situation, the idea that two former Presidents would be involved with social circles, even if it were accidental. Scenes such as this example are represented matter-of-factly within the film and awkwardly waits for the laughs to emit from the moviegoer audience. It’s that awkwardness that’s inadvertently hilarious. It makes the movie enjoyable, perhaps for the wrong reason.
Aside from the illogical plot of the film, the other glaring flaw of My Fellow Americans was its inability to utilize a cast that was highly talented. Dan Aykroyd is reduced to a handful of scenes that barely showed any range. Television great, Sela Ward, is given a handful of lines in the role of the clichéd reporter who has no relevancy with the film’s plot at all. Even more egregious was the minimal use of Hollywood-legend actress, Lauren Bacall, who was nothing more than a famous face in the film. Bacall’s presence in the movie served zero purpose at all, which begs the question as to why the casting director felt such a heavyweight Hollywood icon was needed at all for the role.
What was effective and absolutely worked to the advantage of the film was Jack Lemmon and James Garner. Both actors bounce off of each other surprisingly well, to which their sassy exchanges throughout the movie make the overall film memorable. This is the classic example of two talented actors taking a substandard script and breathing some life into it. Lemmon and Garner took a script that, quite honestly, wasn’t funny and interjected comedic timing and delivery that made the script’s dialogue funny. Therefore, the bantering between the two ex-Presidents makes for some of the film’s most amusing scenes and sequences. My Fellow Americans is essentially the Grumpy Old Men franchise but with the principle characters being two Presidents who antagonize each other instead.
One other attribute that works to the film’s advantage is the political satire. The film frames Jack Lemmon’s President Kramer after Gerald Ford, who was notoriously known for being a major cheapskate during his term as President. President Ford was known for his poor tipping skills, if he ever tipped at all, and for his determination to save a dollar he could otherwise keep in his pocket. Jack Lemmon uses this Presidential quirk to his advantage, portraying his character as someone who is determined to stretch his dollar to the final penny, if possible. That, along with the satirizing of trying to maintain post-Presidency relevancy, is what makes Jack Lemmon thoroughly entertaining throughout the film. From promoting his “Hail to the Chef” cookbook to the commemorative President Kramer doll in his Presidential library, this gave Lemmon enough physical comedy to utilize his classic style of reactionary comedy that he was known for. As a result of this, Jack Lemmon is the standout of the film. He delivers the vast majority of the film’s laughs. His performance never indicates “Presidential,” but that is precisely how Jack Lemmon intended to play the character, as a washed-up, has-been in American politics who desperately wants the spotlight on him again. Lemmon’s decision to play the role in that manner actually gave the character an ounce of believability, which allowed the comedy derived from the character to actually, somewhat, make sense.
James Garner’s President Douglas, in contrast, is yet another representation of President John F. Kennedy and his philandering antics during his Presidency, most notably with Marilyn Monroe. Therefore, when his Presidential quirks are clashed with Jack Lemmon’s, it actually providing a very entertaining conflict of personalities between the two actors. Garner mostly plays the role straight, which was needed when Lemmon’s performance was slightly exaggerated for comedic purposes. Garner, known his character’s cowardly performance on The Rockford Files TV show, actually reversed his typical acting style and framed his performance as someone seeking to do what is right, thereby making him the film’s moral compass. In that regard, Garner succeeds in this film. Also worth noting is that My Fellow Americans was originally intended as a Jack Lemmon-Walter Matthau vehicle, but due to Matthau’s health, he was unable to be a part of the film, to which he was replaced by Garner. That being said, James Garner surprisingly holds his own alongside Jack Lemmon. His comedy style wavered repeatedly throughout the film, but he still was able to deliver his comedic lines with enough push to allow Jack Lemmon to be reactionary towards him.
My Fellow Americans is not a great movie. It’s not one that you should expect any greatness from. Technically speaking, it’s a poorly made comedy. However, there is something quirky about the film that allows for it to become a guilty pleasure. The film does have its positives, such as the Lemmon-Garner dynamic and the film’s political satire. Are they able to save the overall poor film? That’s truly up to the moviegoer on an individual basis. For the sake of this review, it can be argued that both those qualities the film offers does, in fact, give the movie enough merit to be watched. My Fellow Americans is undoubtedly a guilty pleasure and one can never have too many guilty pleasure films at their disposal.