Man of the Year
is a comedy about a comic who gets elected president of the U.S. -- or rather that's how the film starts out, only writer-director Barry Levinson gets sidetracked. He diverts his film into a political thriller with its own conspiracy theory, an improbable romance and a curious subplot that feels like an anti-smoking ad. Little wonder his bewildered star, Robin Williams, looks confused much of the time.
Levinson once built a fairly unstable comedy around Williams' manic personality in Good Morning, Vietnam
, and everyone laughed so hard that few noticed. But here confusion and mixed messages work against a coherent viewpoint -- and laughs.
The film wants to focus on the intersection of media and politics, which Levinson did in his very similar though much better movie, Wag the Dog
. For that matter, Warren Beatty
does a superior job of satirizing the fallout from a political candidate who actually tells voters what he thinks with brutal honesty rather than stay on a message designed by political consultants.
One problem here is that those consultants must have sat by Levinson's computer as he wrote. He is oh-so-careful not to make a movie that is too liberal or too conservative. No real issue is at stake, and Iraq and the war on terror do not exist. The result is a generic political movie without any real politics. So Man of the Year
will offend nobody but just as likely will entertain very few. Boxoffice does not look promising after the opening weekend.
A popular TV pundit/comic, Tom Dobbs (Williams), cracks one too many jokes about running for president, only to discover that the Internet effectively has drafted him as an independent candidate. When Tom decides to run, this throws his entourage -- his chain-smoking, pragmatic manager Jack Menken (Christopher Walken
) and rumpled, crusty head writer Eddie Langston (Lewis Black
) -- into a tizzy. The film then imagines that in the electronic age a comic like Tom can buy no ads and wage a campaign via celebrityhood and the Internet and still get on the ballot in 17 key states.
Meanwhile, an evil software company has sold the U.S. on a too-easy-to-be-true national voting system. (Let's ignore the fact voting systems are run by states, not the federal government.) A diligent software analyst, Eleanor Green
) -- discovers a huge glitch in the system only weeks before the election, a discovery that the firm's legal counsel, Alan Stewart (Jeff Goldblum
), will go to any length to bury.
Tom then gets elected president because of the glitch. So the rest of the movie focuses not on the real story -- what would happen were an intelligent and political savvy comic to ascend to the Oval Office -- but rather on a third-rate thriller about a corporation trying to destroy, corrupt or smear a disgruntled employee. Throw in an unconvincing romance between Tom and Eleanor along with Jack's smoking-related illness and you've pretty much blunted any satirical sharpness.
This confusion is reflected in the movie's look. Cinematographer Dick Pope
shoots in a documentary style as if this were All the President's Men
. Yet designer Stefania Cella
's sets are from that not-quite-real world of Wag the Dog
Toward the end, Levinson inserts speeches into his dialogue, as if suddenly realizing his message is getting lost: In one instance, Eddie erupts into a diatribe about how TV makes everything feel credible, elevating a Nazi apologist and a Holocaust historian to the same debate platform before undiscerning cameras.
Williams fluctuates between his sentimental/serious side and outrageous manic comedy, so you never quite know who this character is. Linney and Goldblum are playing serious melodrama, while Walken and Black are Woody Allen-esque showbiz creatures, constantly urging their protege to stick to comedy.
Too bad Man of the Year
didn't have the courage of its convictions -- to say something meaningful and shrug off the fallout from the outraged extremes of the political spectrum. A feel-good political satire is not what the nation needs at this moment.
MAN OF THE YEAR
Screenwriter-director: Barry Levinson
Producers: James G. Robinson, David Robinson
Executive producers: Guy McElwaine
, David Coatsworth
, Rob Fried
Director of photography: Dick Pope
Production designer: Stefania Cella
Music: Graeme Revell
Costume designer: Delphine White
Editor: Steven Weisberg, Blair Daily
Tom Dobbs: Robin Williams
Jack Menken: Christopher Walken
Eleanor: Laura Linney
Eddie: Lewis Black
Stewart: Jeff Goldblum
Danny: David Alpay
Moderator: Faith Daniels
Running time -- 115 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13