MAN OF THE YEAR jj

2006, PG-13, 116 mins.

Tom Dobbs: Robin Williams / Jack Menken: Christopher Walken / Eleanor: Laura Linney / Eddie Langston: Lewis Black / Stewart: Jeff Goldblum / Hemmings: Rick Roberts

Written and directed by Barry Levinson

MAN OF THE YEAR is very much like its writer/director Barry Levinson:

Woefully inconsistent. 

I defy anyone to name another once proven, Oscar winning talent that has been so remarkably bipolar with his career as much as him.  When his films work, there are pleasures to sit through.  When they don't, they are utterly pain-inducing. 

Levinson has made some great films, like DINER, RAIN MAN, GOOD MORNING, VIETNAM, SLEEPERS, and WAG THE DOG, the latter being of the best of the recent political satires.  Yet, for each one of those successes he has had several abysmal failures, like TOYS, JIMMY HOLLYWOOD, SPHERE, BANDITS, and his creme de la creme of embarrassing mediocrity, 2004’s ENVY, a film where he achieved the Herculean task of pairing Ben Stiller and Jack Black together and producing one of the most dreadfully unfunny comedies of the last few years.  After the cringe worthy wasteland that was that comedy, I feared that all hope was lost for the filmmaker.

Maybe that is why I went into MAN OF THE YEAR with decidedly low expectations.  The premise alone seems quite enticing and spirited, though.  Robin Williams plays a John Stewart- inspired talk show host that runs for and wins the US presidency after he is fed up with party politics. 

Hmmm…did I just spoil the film for you? 

Hardly, because Universal Pictures, in their infinite wisdom, decided to reveal that plot point in one of the single worst spoiler filled trailers of recent memory.  So, okay, the cat was out of the bag just by watching the preview.  We all know that Williams wins.  So, is there anything else to get buts in the theatre to watch the film?  In short, not really. 

MAN OF THE YEAR is not to type of cataclysmic abomination that was Levinson’s ENVY.  Thank-God.  The film has moments of wit and, at least on a few occasions, has something legitimate to say about America’s current political system.  The film also benefits from some genuinely likeable supporting characters that are well written and performed.  Yet, the film’s ultimate misgiving is that (a) it does not go far enough with saying enough about US politics and (b) the film is so immensely lopsided and inconsistent in terms of tone that you kind of leave the theatre with a puzzled look on your face.

Is MAN OF THE YEAR supposed to be a brainy and acerbic political satire, ala WAG THE DOG?  Does it want to be a conspiratorial political thriller that seems to have come from the mind of a John Grisham or Tom Clancy?  Does it want to be a lightweight farce and Robin Williams vanity project?  Does it want to be a cute and warm-hearted romantic comedy with political leanings, ala THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT?  After sitting through MAN OF THE YEAR one thing dawned on me – this film really has no idea what it really wants to be about.  A film that suffers from what I call cinematic multiple personality disorder is one of the most annoying of aliments.

This is a shame, because the initial concept and setup of MAN OF THE YEAR could have been the launching point for a really stimulating and sarcastic satire.  The problem is one of implementation and execution.  Levinson simply tries to do far too much here.  Whereas other solid satires throw one dart at the board and hit bullseyes, Levinson throws way, way too many darts, with many of them missing the board altogether. 

Clearly, the film does manage to touch on some genuine nuggets of truth about the manner with which contemporary politicians have seemingly become more generic, bland, and essentially irrelevant to the lives of many voters.  In odd ways, the sharp and edgy zingers that TV political satirists like John Stewart and Stephen Colbert spew out cut to the heart of pressing matters with a nail-biting authority and plainspokenness that most politicians only dream them could achieve.  It would almost be gratifying to have one of them as the most powerful man in the world.  MAN OF THE YEAR provides that intriguing presence, but unfortunately gets sidetracked by too many disparaging twists in tone, not to mention subplots that ring falsely and don't gel well.  There is a pointed and hearted political satire to be made with this material, but MAN OF THE YEAR does so in such a wishy-washy fashion.

Tom Dobbs (Robin Williams, proving why he is so much better doing drama than he is mugging the camera as he does here) is a political comedian with a very popular DAILY SHOW-esque talk show.  At one particular point during the talk show’s Q and A with the audience one member stands up and offers up an idea to the politically ambivalent Dobbs.  “Why don’t you run for President,” she asks.  The audience seems in love with the idea.  Dobbs takes it as a joke, but within no time, he starts to give it serious thought.

Soon, the Internet is abuzz with activity and - after a successful petition that shows that he has overwhelming support - Dobbs announces his candidacy for president.  He declares himself an independent, which – in political terms – should mean an easy defeat, even despite his name showing up on the ballots of 13 states.  Yet, support for him mounts.  He takes a refreshingly unique approach to running his campaign on a shoestring budget that lacks greedy corporate interests that normally like to make campaign contributions first and asks for huge favors later.  Instead of getting contributions and using them to launch an offensive, Dobbs decides to not buy one TV advertisement to lynch the other candidates.  What he does is let his wit, intelligence, and easy-going and affable charisma speak for him.

In a TV debate with the other two candidates, he easily shows them up for the stiffs they are and he wins over the audience in a big, big way.  This scene showcases Williams’ skills at going on endless comedic rants that highlights his funny bone, but – honestly – would he really be given the chance to leave his podium, constantly interrupt his candidates, and effectively take over the debate while the moderator pleads with him to shut up, be courteous, and allow his competition a few words in edgewise?  Of course, in a film like this we are forced to like this guy no matter what, but during the debate he comes across as a bit too selfish and inconsiderate.  I mean, he just went on…and on…and on…without any inkling on his part to give his fellow candidates a fair say.  Sure, the other two men are corporate puppets and stooges, but what can’t they get up and pontificate endlessly like he does?  In any event, at least the film is bipartisan.  It treats the Democrats and Republicans equally with disdain.

After the debate the country goes to the polling stations and a miracle happens – Dobbs wins the election and becomes the US President.  Hmmmm…did he really, though?  This brings us to the other radical shift in tone (and story) that the film takes.  A brilliant computer whiz named Eleanor (played very well by Laura Linney, who seems to have fallen into MAN OF THE YEAR from another film altogether) has recently helped develop software for a new touch screen computer voting system that was used in the recent election.  Delacroy Systems, the company she works for, is poised to make billions if they can implement their system to other democracies of the world to use. 

Unfortunately, Eleanor discovers a glitch that proves that Dobbs did not – in fact – win the election.  Eleanor, shocked with this news, gathers up all of her ethical power to confront her CEO (Rick Roberts) with the news.  He mistakenly assures her that everything is a-okay.  She does not buy that.  Instead, she plans to go public and speak to Dobbs herself.  Realizing that her reveal of the glitch could cost the company big profits, the CEO’s security henchmen of sorts (played in a brief, but spirited and acid-tongued performance by Jeff Goldblum) goes on the counter offensive.

What do they do?  They break into her home one night and drug her to the point where a later  toxicology test on her at a hospital shows her to be a raging drug addict.  This, consequently, makes her look like a real loose cannon and her reputation is destroyed so much that her company fires her, all but diluting any faith that the public would have in her story of voter corruption.  However, Eleanor will not go down without a fight and manages to speak to Dobbs and reveal the truth to him just as he is taking office.  Soon, Dobbs faces a real moral conundrum:  Does he still take office and run the country with a guilty conscience or does he relinquish the presidency?  All I can say is that the final act of the film has Williams giving one of those nauseatingly saccharine speeches to the nation that has echoes of PATCH ADAMS.

Okay, so what dies Dobbs do?  (SPOILER WARNING) He does relinquish the Presidency.  Yet, a more daring, somber, and unique approach would have been for him to decide to stick with the Presidency regardless of the truth, which would have hammered home the film’s underlining message a bit more forcefully (in this way, Dobbs would have become an eerie reflection of what he hates the most in politicians).  Unfortunately, Levinson and company take the safe route, which you really never should in cynical political satires.  And, on top of that, I never once believed that he believed Eleanor’s story?  She never really provides one kernel of truth to him, but he just “has a gut instinct” that she is telling the truth.  Yup.  Sure.  Uh-huh.  All evidence points to her being a real whack job, so why does he so intuitively buy her story?

If the subplot with Eleanor and her CEO were not flowing well enough with the rest of the film, her forced semi-romantic subplot with Dobbs himself feels equally forced.  The film’s attempts at romance are weak at best.  Scenes involving her and Dobbs ring false, the tense moments with her and members of Delecroy stalking and drugging her feel out of place, and the film’s handling of the overwhelming ethical dilemma is poorly handled.  Honestly, would the country be better off with a falsely elected man of the people who may – just may – be the best man for the job or would they be better off with an idiot who could care less about the people?  MAN OF THE YEAR is too conventional with the material when it should be skewering its targets.

If anything, I did like some of the performances, especially by Linney, even though her character seems like out of left field for a political comedy.  I truly enjoyed the work by DAILY SHOW alumni Lewis Black as an aid to Dobbs, as well as Christopher Walken’s inspired work as Dobbs' manager, who fires off zingers and monologues in that quintessential Walkenian manner that I have grown to relish.  Ironically, the only real black mark on the film’s performance side is Williams himself.  Yes, he is funny here, but he never really carves out a memorable or interesting character.  Dobbs feels more like the result of some improvisational moments from Williams’s comedic repertoire than he does a fully developed persona.  It’s hard not to laugh at his posturing in the film, but too often his overwhelming comedic persona gets in the way to the point of distraction.  He much more effectively married drama and comedy in GOOD MORNING VIETNAM.

MAN OF THE YEAR is indicative of the type of failed opportunity that Barry Levinson is beginning to gain a reputation for.  The film has a somewhat ingenious premise (comedian runs for and successfully wins the US presidency), but MAN OF THE YEAR is sort of a honorable failure at developing the satiric possibilities of it.  Levinson and company have decent points to make about the political process and the power of special interests groups, but the film lacks a truly sardonic edge and appeal.  Furthermore, there are just too many faces to this film; it wants to be part comedy, part satire, part romance, part political thriller…it’s just too much.  MAN OF THE YEAR is funny in moderate dosages, and it uses Robin Williams skills to proper effect, but the real irony of the film is that it takes a backseat to delivering thoughtful political commentary and instead feels more comfortable with being dull and spineless.  The film is simply a hybrid of too many disingenuous elements and its most glaring problem is that it’s too lukewarm with the scandalous material when it should be piping hot.  In short, MAN OF THE YEAR comes across as more phony than topical or relevant.

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