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Man of the Year (2006) Print E-mail
Friday, 13 October 2006
Barry Levinson directed Robin Williams to a Best Actor Oscar nomination in “Good Morning, Vietnam,” but that was almost 20 years ago. More recently, Levinson made the pointed political satire “Wag the Dog,” but that was co-written by David Mamet. Now Levinson offers “Man of the Year;” it stars Robin Williams but it was written by Levinson himself. And isn’t set in Baltimore (though we see road signs).

The biggest problem with the movie is credibility. Comedy-news show host Tom Dobbs (Williams) runs for President—but aside from a single line, there’s no mention of a vice president; Levinson clearly hopes we won’t notice. Dobbs, like Williams, has a lively past that includes drug use, alcohol and a lot of sex. Dobbs tosses off one or two lines about the problems his past might cause him on the campaign trail, but then the matter is dropped. As with the invisible veep nominee, clearly Levinson wants us to overlook this kind of thing. There are other such ideas we’re supposed to forget about, such as a car just happening to run into a phone booth when the person making the call is terrified of being followed.

It must be admitted that “Man of the Year” is very funny, at least in the first half, and Williams improvising like mad is generally hilarious. It’s just that the movie is entirely a premise; Levinson simply failed to work it effectively into a feature. It’s made of big chunks of ideas that don’t integrate, that exist only in their own part of the movie.

Dobbs is a political satirist of the Jon Stewart stripe (Stewart’s name is dropped several times), wildly popular with a certain segment of the public. During a telecast, an audience member asks an only slightly serious question—why doesn’t he run for President? And he does. But Levinson doesn’t dramatize Dobbs’ decision in any way; he doesn’t even talk it over with his long-time manager Jack Menken (Christopher Walken) or writer Eddie Langston (Lewis Black). One moment he’s on TV, the next he’s in a tour bus cruising the United States, accompanied by Jack, Eddie and other staffers.

High-tech company Delacroy has just landed the very lucrative contract of supplying voting machines and technology for the upcoming Presidential election. Head honchos Hemmings (Rick Roberts, in Bill Gates mode) and Alan Stewart (an ill-used Jeff Goldblum) are thrilled; they’re going to really clean up. But Delacroy staffer Eleanor Green (Laura Linney) has spotted anomalous results during test runs. She reports the problem to Hemmings and Stewart—who completely ignore her.
Elsewhere, Dobbs’ campaign is trundling along. He wants to stick to the issues and so never goes into comic mode. His earnest, persistent seriousness is dragging down his campaign, disappointing everyone—even though those closest to him, and Dobbs himself, know there’s no chance of him actually winning. He just wants to use his position as a well-known independent candidate to shake things up on a national political level.

Ellie Green is very concerned over the possibility of the Delacroy voting machines producing an inaccurate tally, but can’t get anyone to believe her. Then one night, someone breaks into her apartment. The next morning, she awakens to find an injection mark on her arm—and at work, she freaks out in a drug-addict manner, and is sent to a hospital. Levinson wants this side of the story to be a political thriller, but it’s a very crude fit with the Robin Williams side, even when Dobbs and Ellie finally meet.

Before they do, though, Dobbs’ popularity has landed him in a three-way national debate with Democratic president Kellogg (Dave Nichols) and the Republican candidate, Senator Mills (David Ferry), who smiles a lot. Neither democrats nor republicans have anything to worry about—none of these people represent or even faintly resemble President Bush or any potential Democratic presidential nominees. “Wag the Dog” was sharp, cynical and pointed; “Man of the Year” is a cream puff; overly-structured debates come in for a whomping, and Williams fires off rapidly-paced comic chatter that itself includes a few digs at Bush and things related to him, but it’s no more threatening than the average Tonight show episode.

At the debate, Dobbs is so annoyed by the restrictions on behavior that he cuts loose, runs free; no one can get him to sit down and shut up, and the audience LOVES it. (So does the movie audience; it’s very good Williams.) Suddenly, Dobbs is a serious candidate—because he’s NOT serious. He’s a comic juggernaut, barreling across the country in a rapidly-edited montage.

But Ellie, now without a job, is still trying to get in touch with someone, anyone, who’ll listen to her, especially now that she’s figured out the glitch in the system. (What she says actually makes no sense; it would have worked better if she hadn’t tried to explain it.)

Dobbs is indeed elected president. With complete lack of believability, Ellie is able to walk up to him at one of the many victory parties, hoping to tell him that no, he wasn’t really elected. She’s sure he’s an honest man and will step down. Meanwhile, she’s still the target of Delacroy thugs.

The movie is narrated in the aftermath by a wheelchair-bound Jack Mencken; he’s apparently being interviewed for a TV documentary. The movie returns to him several times. The relationship between Menken and Dobbs is actually the most interesting aspect of the movie—two men whose long-lasting, deep friendship binds them together. Somewhat disconcertingly, Walken resembles himself as the Headless Horseman, an idea that’s hard to shake, even though here he’s a thoroughly nice guy.

Williams is fine in both the dramatic and comedy scenes, but the movie’s weak structure carries him with it when it finally collapses altogether in the last third. Levinson fails to create a sense of a rising climax; almost nothing congeals in the latter part of the film, and the attention of the audience wanders. He clearly had a basic idea: a comedian is elected president---but then was unable to devise a satisfactory story including that idea. The movie doesn’t create a sense of resolution; it’s more as if the film simply stopped.

For one thing, Levinson assiduously avoids issues beyond those Williams chatters his way through in the no-doubt unscripted sequences. We never know what President Kellogg or Senator Mills stand for, if anything. Levinson clearly loves America, but also obviously wants politics to change, to relate to the people more, to have candidates who engage each other in true, spirited debates—but this wasn’t the best platform for those positions. As a political film, it’s very weak tea.

But as a Robin Williams vehicle, it’s pretty good fun, at least for the first two-thirds. He speeds through his material (a bit of it familiar), turns on a dime and offers nine cents change; nothing can slow him down, and you don’t want him to slow down. He may very well be the funniest individual alive, but movies have rarely allowed him to fully display this side of him. This doesn’t either, but at least there’s a lot of very prime Williams to be had in “Man of the Year.”

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