October 12, 2006

Man of the Year

Old pros Levinson and Williams turn timely idea into thematic fire sale

By Michelle Orange

If there were a nosebleed section for high-concept films, it would be the only place Barry Levinson's highly imperfect storm, Man of the Year, could rightfully call home. In attempting to blend a political satire, conspiracy thriller, media caper, toothless romance, and generic, mic-thumping comedy, Levinson has effectively sent his film wandering into the genre desert, where no single direction is taken with any conviction. How the director of Wag the Dog and his Good Morning Vietnam star Robin Williams ended up in this fine mess is anyone's guess; they began with the makings of a timely, multi-layered idea -- "What if a comedian ran for President?" -- and turned it into a thematic fire sale.

After all, God Spoke, the recent documentary about Al Franken, seems to hint that pursuing elected office is the logical outcome (and outlet) for a comedian who dares to put his money where his mouth is. But Man of the Year ends up asking "What if Robin Williams ran for President?", and that is its first offense. Williams plays Tom Dobbs, a motor-mouthed talk show host popular with the set, and in a clumsy prologue, the show's executive producer (played by a fizzy, game Christopher Walken) narrates the events that led to Dobbs running for office, i.e., the taking of a random audience member's suggestion.

Soon Laura Linney shows up as Eleanor Green, a software engineer at Delacroy -- the firm that just won the contract to orchestrate the first e-voted election -- then disappears for a good half hour. In that initial appearance, Green identifies a glitch in the software that ensures inaccurate results; just weeks away from the election, the dark lords at the helm, including Jeff Goldblum, wave away her concerns, suggesting she hates democracy just for good measure. Dobbs, meanwhile, is on the campaign trail, treating the lemmings ("be different" is apparently all that's needed to win over jaded voters) to his raving lunatic platform.

In several extended montages of Williams vamping for his life, including a candidate's debate, the filibuster effect is more annoying than exhilarating. It's Williams at his talk-show worst, the one whose frenetic runs build to such a froth that it doesn't matter what he's saying -- you can't make it out anyway -- as it becomes terrifyingly clear that he would gut himself right there and make hand puppets from his kidneys if it kept the laughs coming.

Outside of the stand-up scenes, Williams is oddly stilted, with wry wingman Lewis Black out-underplaying him in every scene. Once Dobbs semi-actually wins the election (the glitch, you see), Levinson loses what little control he had and the film scatters in every direction like a bag of, say, lost marbles. Between the anemic stabs at political relevancy and stale pronouncements about the culture we live in ("TV is scary, TV makes things credible"), there is no room for anything even remotely fresh or lifelike to take place. Completing his cycle through the media food chain, Dobbs ends up on "Weekend Update" for some image rehab, but it devolves into a treacly confessional whose main lesson is: Never, never set a scene involving Tina Fey and Amy Poehler to a flute-y, open-wide-for-the-big-gay-finish score.

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