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Lost in Africa

What's Bruce Beresford, acclaimed director of Driving Miss Daisy, doing making a film in which an aged duchess is shown naked from behind as she gets surprised in the shower by a bumbling young diplomat? Why would Sean Connery, dust still not settled on his Oscar-winning performance in The Untouchables, consent to play a stalwart doctor who, magnifying glass in hand, instructs the worried diplomat to drop his pants and, when asked if he sees anything, replies, "Nothing significant"? How could Dame Diana Rigg, recently bestowed a Tony Award for her lead role in Medea, allow herself, as a career commissioner's lonely wife, to interrupt a dangerous escape from a political riot by declaring to the diplomat, "I want our loins to mingle"?

A Good Man in Africa is a bad movie from Hollywood. Real bad. With such a surfeit of talent, it shouldn't be. Besides Connery and Rigg, the cast boasts John Lithgow, Louis Gossett Jr. and Joanne Whalley-Kilmer. From production designer Herbert Pinter to cinematographer Andrezj Bartkowiak to editor Jim Clark, Beresford stockpiles master technicians. William Boyd, a Booker Prize-winning novelist, adapted his own well-received novel. No matter. A can't-miss misses widely. That's show biz.

The sophomoric story revolves around what are supposed to be the comic misadventures of Morgan Leafy (Colin Friels), a frustrated British diplomat in Kinjanja, a fictitious and newly independent West African country. Though a resident for three years, Leafy knows nothing of the country except for its women and drink; this is supposed to pass for winningly ne'er-do-well. A few minutes into things, Leafy goes to the airport to meet British High Commissioner Arthur Fanshawe (John Lithgow), who's bringing Leafy an urgent assignment: charm presidential-election favorite Professor Sam Adekunle (Louis Gossett Jr.) so England can get dibs on Kinjanja's newly discovered oil reserves. Why Fanshawe couldn't tell Leafy all this over the phone, I have no idea. Except, maybe, the encounter between the two is supposed to endear us to Leafy: Fanshawe, a pompous buffoon, yells at his subordinate a lot. But not all the time -- otherwise, how to explain his asking Leafy to entertain his young daughter Priscilla (Sarah-Jane Fenton)? On their first date, bikinied Priscilla lets Leafy fondle her a bit, but then tells him she's not ready; on their second date, she slips off her red dress.

Other women disrobe for Leafy just as quickly. Hazel (Jackie Mofokeng), Leafy's beautiful, local and possibly wanton squeeze, disrobes so the movie has an excuse to bring in Dr. Alex Murray (Sean Connery). Murray, to whom Leafy retreats to see if friendly Hazel has given him a venereal disease, is apparently the last good important man in Africa. He's the only one standing in the way of a kickback scheme of newly elected President Adekunle. There's more disrobing as Adekunle catches Leafy in bed with wife Celia (Joanne Whalley-Kilmer), and then lets him go only if Leafy will bribe Dr. Murray to drop his opposition to the kickbacks. Less a cultural conflict than a bawdy comedy of manners, the film is full of, well, loose ends.

Though the movie would have us take Leafy as a prince in a wrinkled suit, he turns out to be simply an obnoxious rogue. And Friels, working overtime from fool to victim to lout to hero, tries much too hard to be endearing. Lithgow also hams it up, while Gossett, actually employing a throat-slitting gesture, is lifeless as a comical threat. Only Connery, making a macho entrance at a traffic mishap, remains relatively unscathed.

Beresford, mistakenly shelving his sensitivity to go for broad humor, recycles fumble-with-a-bikini-top jokes and Three Stooges golf gags. There are high-jinks with a corpse and a preposterous ending involving none-too-observant military police, a penciled-in mustache, a riot and a life-changing death. An example of just how wrong Beresford goes: to enact a ruse, Leafy and Fanshawe swap clothes. In addition to suits, shoes and hairstyles, Beresford has them exchange underwear as well ... all so Dame Rigg can give a lewd look. That's something Medea would never stand for.

A Good Man in Africa.
Directed by Bruce Beresford. With Colin Friels, Sean Connery, Louis Gossett Jr., Joanne Whalley-Kilmer.

Rated R.
93 minutes.

 
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