An occasionally funny, oddly schizophrenic film.
Barry Levinson isn’t new to the world of political satire. His 1997 film Wag the Dog, about a President who manufactures a war in order to distract the public from a Lewinsky-esque scandal, was hailed as a prescient look at the rapidly merging realms of Washington and Hollywood.
His latest effort, Man of the Year, posits another intriguing – and somewhat plausible – scenario: What would happen if a comedian were elected President? The notion isn’t all that absurd, considering America’s long history of entertainers-turned-politicians. And with Al Franken reportedly contemplating a serious run for U.S. Senate, the scenario could soon be a reality.
Robin Williams stars as funnyman Tom Dobbs, host of a late-night talk show featuring heavy doses of political humor. Far from being an apolitical cynic, Dobbs is genuinely concerned about the current state of things, and is soon coaxed by his fans into mounting a serious run for the Presidency. Though he initially stumbles out of the gate, Dobbs’ campaign quickly gains momentum and he is swept into office in a surprise Election Day triumph.
Ads for Man of the Year depict it as a lighthearted satire chock full of Williams’ one-liners and over-the-top antics, but the real thing is decidedly different. There are plenty of quips from Williams, to be sure, but the film soon changes awkwardly from comedy to thriller, centering on a conspiracy involving computer voting irregularities and sinister corporate bigwigs.
Laura Linney plays a software analyst who discovers that Dobbs’ surprise win was actually the result of an error in the computer voting system that her company designed. When she defies a directive from the company’s legal counsel (played superbly by Jeff Goldblum) to keep quiet and takes her concerns to the White House, she soon finds herself pursued by a cadre of corporate goons. The rest of the film follows a fairly standard paint-by-numbers template for a thriller.
Ironically, the movie’s central question is never really answered. We don’t get to find out what would happen if a comedian were elected President, because it’s precisely at that point that the film takes its ill-advised turn towards suspense.
The movie does feature some solid performances. As Dobbs’ cranky, perpetually exasperated head writer, Lewis Black again plays himself (which is fine by me – I love the guy). Christopher Walken plays it surprisingly straight as Dobbs’ no-nonsense manager - a refreshing departure from his recent work, which has all too often drifted into caricature. Goldblum is delightfully shady.
Naturally, a movie like this wouldn’t be complete without a standard implausible romantic subplot; this one involves Williams and Linney. It’s implausible not so much because Linney is out of Williams’ league (which she is), but because the comedian has established such an indelible image as an asexual court jester. It’s like watching Ronald McDonald or Santa Claus get it on – just plain weird.
That’s not to say that Williams isn’t a great actor; indeed, his four Academy Award nominations attest to his immense talent. And he’s still quite capable of delivering the big laughs, too, as he ably demonstrates throughout much the film. Unfortunately, he’s out of place in this schizophrenic comedy/thriller.
Ultimately, Man of the Year aspires to a relevance it can’t possibly achieve, primarily because it doesn’t really take a stand on anything important. Dobbs’ platform is more or less a generic “Throw all the bums out” spiel, and his platitudes about education and healthcare sound suspiciously like those of the politicians he intends to ridicule.
Like so many of our politicians, Man of the Year promises a lot but ultimately disappoints.
What's on the disc:
No commentary tracks. Just two short featurettes:
Commander in Chief: Making of Man of the Year - A standard "making of" piece with interviews from Levinson and members of the cast.
Robin Williams: A "Stand Up" Guy - Behind the scenes glimpses of Robin Williams at his improvisational best.