"Man of the Year" is as confused about what kind of movie it wants to be as it is about what it wants to say or achieve. Written and directed by Barry Levinson (2004's "Envy
"), the film has been misconstrued in its advertising, made to look like a wacky, lighthearted Robin Williams comedy about a comedian who, on a lark, runs for President of the United States and actually wins. While that brief plot description is accurate in setup, its treatment is most certainly not that of a zany romp for mainstream audiences looking for a laugh. Indeed, virtually the only humor to be found is in a few scenes of Williams' stand-up routines, and even those are tired and prefabricated. Of all things, what viewers who choose to see "Man of the Year" will get is a sporadically effective thriller involving a crooked software company, its possibilities for tension lessened by the insistence of throwing in the occasional joke that doesn't fit.
Tom Dobbs (Robin Williams) is a politically-aimed comedic talk show host a 'la
Jon Stewart who, spurred by the suggestion of an audience member who tells him he should run for office, ends up gaining huge Internet-based support. When Tom decides to go for it, backed by wise and supportive manager Jack Menken (Christopher Walken), he suddenly finds himself becoming the Independent candidate. His loose, unstuffy style and progressive ideas appeal in different ways to both the Democratic and Republican parties, enough that when the Presidential election rolls around, Tom actually wins. Suddenly White House-bound, Tom begins excitedly preparing to take over office.
Not so fast, though. It seems studious software analyst Eleanor Green (Laura Linney) has discovered a glitch in the company's new-and-unimproved voting system and, in actuality, Tom didn't come close to beating out his respective opponents. With the firm's oily legal counsel, Alan Stewart (Jeff Goldblum), making it clear that trouble will only come to her if she goes public with the information, Eleanor must decide between keeping quiet and protecting herself, or telling the truth no matter the consequences.
As a political satire, Levinson's own 1997 film, "Wag the Dog," was far more pointed and smart in its targets than "Man of the Year" even comes close to approaching. In fact, writer-director Barry Levinson has unwisely opted to keep political leanings out of the proceedings, in fear of offending anyone lest an opinion be offered. Because of this, the character of Tom Dobbs is only vaguely defined as a person and the possible future U.S. President. Mostly, he comes off as a stand-up comic who isn't very smart and is manic but ill-conceived in getting his stance across. As Tom, Robin Williams (2006's "The Night Listener
") appears to be playing himselfor, at the least, his public personaand this off-the-wall goofiness he exhibits throughout clashes uncomfortably with the serious thriller aspects surrounding the in-peril Eleanor. The more left unsaid about an awkward and preachy subplot involving the health problems of chain-smoking Jack Menken, the better.
Coincidentally, "Man of the Year" works a bit better as a straight suspenser. As the morally conflicted but honorable Eleanor Green, Laura Linney (2005's "The Exorcism of Emily Rose
") acts as if she is in an entirely different motion picture than Robin Williamssomething more along the lines of "The Manchurian Candidate
" than "Dave." With that said, Linney is riveting as a woman rattled by her own conscience and even more hesitant to speak up once she meets Tom and starts to respect who he is; she is the best thing in a film that is at a loss for what the central storyline should be and what tone director Levinson wants to adopt. A few sequences are taut and surprisingly involving, with Eleanor on the run from thugs working for the evil software company. In addition, one jump-out-of-your-seat moment puts to shame similar scenes in most of the recent horror releases. Unfortunately, the bland, airy and flat-footed feel of the rest of the film puts a damper on Eleanor's side of the story, making the viewer cautious about getting too caught up in its dramatics.
"Man of the Year" is beyond uneven. The comedywhat there is of itis drab and predictable. The satirical flourishes are so soft that they are hardly worth mentioning. The thrills are often diffused by the humor-laced tonal shifts working against them. And, as a wish-fulfillment fantasy, the film squanders its potential to explore just what might occur if a comedian were to really become President of the United States. What is the point of the picture, then, if it doesn't work as any of the above and is so cowardly as to make out that the current controversial political climate as well the war on terror do not exist? When the end credits come, dissatisfied viewers will be wondering this very thing.