With the broad, bright media spotlight focused on the upcoming election, a picture about contemporary politics should supply the sort of relevance that in the past characterized a number of classic Hollywood pictures. Most viewers probably also expect the combination of Barry Levinson, the writer-director of Man of the Year, and Robin Williams, its star, to result in a work of some wit and insight, appropriately directed at the tempting targets of this political season; that mixture of intelligence and energy, after all, practically guarantees something special. Despite that talent and the presence of a well known cast, the movie manages only a few laughs and even fewer gestures toward any original commentary on the way we live now and the state of the nation.
Robin Williams plays Tom Dobbs, a comedian and talk show host --- a combination of Oprah Winfrey and Johnny Carson --- who, urged by his fans and his manager (Christopher Walken), announces a run for president. As silly as that may seem, pictures as different as Wild in the Streets (1968) and Dave (1993) propose equally unlikely presidents, and lest we forget, even public clowns like Strom Thurmond and Ross Perot mounted serious campaigns in the past, which makes Dobbs' candidacy quite plausible. When the two major candidates foolishly agree to allow him a spot in one of their debates, he kills, as comedians say, confronting both his opponents, bringing down the house, and setting his previously dull effort on fire.
After he becomes a viable candidate and his campaign picks up steam, the movie begins to shift its focus and tone, turning its essentially comic materials into the stuff of the thriller. A computer expert (Laura Linney) who helped design the software used in the new electronic voting machines discovers a puzzling glitch in the program, but when she reports it to her boss, he ignores her and takes steps to silence her. Some hoods forcibly shoot her full of drugs, which tilts her metabolism and psyche in weird directions, and allows her company to fire her.
When Williams' character wins the election because of the program malfunction --- sound familiar? --- Linney travels to Washington to inform him of the real reason for his victory. In that location the picture jumps back and forth from her efforts to convince the president-elect of the truth to her attempts to escape the apparently murderous intentions of her boss' thugs. It also now and then touches on Williams' own moral dilemma about winning the election through fraud and error.
Both the writing and directing of Man of the Year exhibit a surprising array of problems, all of them apparently the work of Barry Levinson. To begin with, even though the premise initially means something and possesses some importance, the movie never really seems to believe in itself enough to make anything matter. Whenever some useful or intelligent point arises, the script flees into jokes and gags, most of which are only mildly amusing.
Although the major character presumably believes in some kind of platform and runs for serious reasons, he only manages to spout the usual cliches about lobbyists and corruption and Washington insiders, perfectly true complaints that unfortunately constitute the daily blather of the hypocrites currently in power. The director apparently wants the audience to regard Williams as noble and sincere, but he and his entourage of comedy writers and television personnel seem merely silly, constantly reiterating their advice on how he should take aim at his opponents and laughing to signal that someone's made a joke.
Its constant shifts of form and mood from comedy to political satire to dubious thriller suggests a failure of nerve on the part of the writer-director, who settles for a general and inconsequential blandness and in the process even manages to stifle Robin Williams' manic energies. The constant lobbing of softballs and the refusal to engage an issue with any passion --- apparently efforts to avoid offending any member of the audience of any party --- robs the picture of the sharp edge and strong statement necessary in a political comedy or even a political thriller. Tellingly and ironically, the president-elect announces his decision about the election on Saturday Night Live, which usually presents its satire in funnier, more direct, even more outrageous ways than Man of the Year.
Man of the Year (PG-13), written and directed by Barry Levinson, is now playing at Culver Ridge 16, Pittsford, Henrietta 18, Webster 12, Tinseltown, Greece Ridge 12, and Eastview 13.