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My Fellow Americans is a throwback to a kinder, gentler political era: 1996

Jack Lemmon and James Garner are ex-presidents and enemies who team up to save the world.

Jack Lemmon and James Garner raise their hands on a podium in the movie My Fellow Americans.
Jack Lemmon and James Garner team up to fight crime in My Fellow Americans.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Every weekend, we pick a movie you can watch at home that dovetails with an event from the previous week. Old, new, blockbuster, arthouse: They’re all fair game. What you can count on is a weekend watch that sheds new light on the week that was. The movie of the week for October 16 through 22 is My Fellow Americans (1996), directed by Peter Segal and available to digitally rent on YouTube, Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, and Vudu.

On Thursday night, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump took part in the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner in New York City, an annual event since 1945 that’s hosted by the archbishop of New York and functions as a fundraiser for Catholic charities. When a presidential election is on, the nominees give speeches. It’s basically a comedy roast.

Most years, it’s fun and lighthearted. But 2016 is not most years. It got weird.

But one of Clinton’s jokes caught my eye: “If Donald does win,” she said, “it’ll be awkward at the annual Presidents Day photo, when all the presidents gather at the White House. And not just with Bill. How is Barack going to get past the Muslim ban?”

Being president seems weird enough. But the idea of being an ex-president is even stranger. I mean, what a giant adrenaline letdown. Do you miss hearing “Hail to the Chief”? Do you call up the ex-VP to spitball? Do you come up with a pseudonym and call in to political talk shows? What do you do for fun?

And how awkward is that annual Presidents Day photo?

In search of answers, I suddenly recalled My Fellow Americans, a 1996 screwball comedy that stars Jack Lemmon and James Garner as two ex-presidents, Kramer and Douglas, from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum. They hate each other, but are forced to team up anyhow and take down the current President Haney (played by Dan Aykroyd), exposing his corruption and misdeeds.

James Garner and Jack Lemmon on a road trip to save the world.
James Garner and Jack Lemmon on a road trip to save the world.

It’s a pretty silly movie, but in the best possible way, and it answers an eternal question: What would ex-presidents talk about if they were out driving around taking down corruption together? My favorite answer the movie gives to that question: ruefully sing the lyrics they’d made up to Hail to the Chief, since they had to hear it every time they entered a room. (Kramer: “Hail to the chief, he's the chief and he needs hailing. He is the chief, so everybody hail like crazy...”)

The movie reminds us of a simpler time, a mere 20 years ago, when making a movie about the presidency didn’t mean you were making a dystopian horror film, but rather something more like a popcorn flick with some nice laughs. (Plus, unlike the jokes at this week’s Smith dinner, it’s actually funny.)

But it also raises a question: Which ex-presidents would make the dream corruption-fighting team, if they could get along?

My picks are Obama and Coolidge. True Detective season three!

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