Review: Man of the Year

Tom Dobbs (Robin Williams) is an adored political talk show host. Egged on by his viewers, Dobbs decides to run for president, hoping to at least inject some truth into the corrupt process. Unexpectedly, Dobbs wins the election, taking him and his team (including Christopher Walken and Lewis Black) to the ultimate arena of power. For Eleanor (Laura Linney), the election is far more troubling; as a lackey at a high-tech computer ballot firm, Eleanor decides to go public with a glitch that might jeopardize Dobbs' victory, and now her boss (Jeff Goldblum) looks to discredit her any way he can her before she reveals her discovery.

Oh my, this has to be the strangest film to come out in recent memory not directed by David Lynch.

"Man of the Year" (IMDb listing) is a political comedy. No, don't fall asleep on me just yet. It's a political comedy that eventually stops being a comedy, like a wedding where the groom gets cold feet and bolts midway through the ceremony. Somewhere in the middle of this picture, all the participants decided to make their own separate movie, leaving the finished product chaotic, misguided, and borderline insane.

Universal Studios wants to sell you on a bright, fizzy liberal fantasy film, playing off the big idea: what if Jon Stewart won a presidential election? Now that's a potent jump-off point for a wicked satire of current politics and a general pantsing of Washington's dirty little secrets. However, writer/director Barry Levinson has employed Robin Williams to be the flapping mouthpiece of this Libertarian sass, marking the third time the two have worked together (1987's "Good Morning Vietnam" and the screwy 1992 film "Toys").

In the past Levinson could turn on the camera and let Williams riff himself into a sugar coma. But 14 years later, Williams' ideas have slowed to a trickle and Levinson somehow turns "Man" into a stand-up concert film with Dobbs' political material not much different than anything you'd find in a dank comedy club. Tom Dobbs isn't a man with a plan; he's armed only with one-liners and upper-class rage. Williams has played this role time and again, and it's curious to see his synapses firing slightly slower these days. Levinson, it seems, only wants punchlines from Williams, not a thoughtful performance.

Dobbs is a limousine optimist finally handed the keys to the kingdom, but we never see what this TV personality can do with the opportunity of a lifetime. Levinson doesn't lend Dobbs any range outside of a sleepy prankster routine (even that wouldn't fly on basic cable these days), and it's a baffling choice to keep the character mired in quips when the premise could have run breathless with Dobbs in office taking on the establishment and facing the bitter wrath of his constituents. There's a huge effort to brand Dobbs a fearless critic of presidential standards, but Levinson ignores the crucial payoff, spending a great deal of time scripting softball civic lectures for his cast to glibly deliver instead of actually demonstrating the change they promise after their big win.

Then there's the Laura Linney character.

I give Levinson credit for not taking the easy road with any picture he's made in recent years, regardless of their consistent lack of quality. "Man" furthers the grabby satiric bent of his 1997 send up "Wag the Dog," though he's chickened out in a major way for this feature. The entire Eleanor subplot in "Man" is a head-slappingly brutal miscalculation. Universal promises tears of laughter in their marketing for "Man," but the truth of the film is that it often resembles stone-faced outtakes from "Three Days of the Condor." That's not exactly a key that opens the laugh door.

By adding sobering thriller elements to the story, Levinson has derailed his own product and further strained his directorial capabilities, which, if you ask me, haven't been in good form since 1991's "Bugsy."

If a flat-out, bug-in-the-phone, assassination-attempting conspiracy thriller in the middle of a kid-gloved political comedy sounds strange, it plays even weirder. One minute Dobbs is soothing the masses with his two-drink-minimum social ills shtick and the next Eleanor is being framed for cocaine abuse or thumping corporate goons in a mall parking ramp. I can't understand the filmmakers' motivation here, other than to let the film run loose and hope someone pastes an "original!" tag on it down the line. "Man" has the kind of dizzying tonal changes that makes one wonder if a P.A. should've administered a breathalyzer test on Levinson during production.

Truthfully, there are about five different movies running around "Man of the Year" by the end of it, and they all suffer from neglect and a substantial amount of poor judgment. Perhaps Levinson should've picked just one subplot to build a film upon. This is a movie desperate to inspire we the people to ache for change from our political leaders, but it's so bungled, the message is lost in the misery of such careless filmmaking.

Filmfodder Grade: D+