Exiting the theater where I’d just seen Barry Levinson’s Man of the Year, I overheard someone behind me liken Robin Williams’ character in the film to Ronald Reagan. While my basic response to that interpretation is one of head-shaking wonderment, I also think it’s a reading of the film that perfectly illustrates just how toothless Levinson’s would-be political satire is. I’m sure it would come as some surprise to both Levinson and Williams that they’ve evoked Reagan in a viewer’s mind with this film.
Yet what exactly did they expect? They made something that can only be oxymoronically tagged as a “feel good satire” — and that’s the good news. There are worse things about Man of the Year than its failure as satire — like its failure as a political thriller and its failure as an ill-conceived romance. That’s three failures in the space of one movie, an impressive achievement in itself, but it doesn’t stop there. There’s also a failed — or at least meandering and pointless — subplot concerning Christopher Walken’s character having emphysema. (Maybe Walken simply wanted to spend as much of the film as possible seated or lying down? That makes as much sense as anything.)
The basic idea for the movie has promise — a politically bent comedian (think Jon Stewart or Bill Maher), Tom Dobbs (Williams), takes a fan’s suggestion that he seriously run for president and does so. It’s a concept that ought to be self-sustaining, but it stumbles almost at once thanks to Levinson and Williams and their out of touch “old folks making rhythm” approach. Twenty-five years ago this might have been satirical. Today, it’s on the chilly side of tepid — something that reminds us that Levinson only directed the vicious Wag the Dog (1997), he didn’t write it. This is Wag the Dog as it might have been written by the writer-director of Toys (1992), which should tell you a lot.
Of course, the mere fact that it’s been some considerable time since Williams has been comedically edgy in any real sense of the word isn’t helpful. In recent years — Death to Smoochy (2002) to one side — Williams is more your grandmother’s idea of a hip comic. Worse, though, is the fact that Levinson devotes maybe 30 minutes of the film to the campaign — and that includes time pointlessly eaten up by Dobbs’ attempts to present himself as a serious-minded candidate — with the film only coming to life during the presidential debate sequence.
The bulk of the film is given over to a corporate-greed storyline that attempts to turn the events into a thriller — and on a premise that doesn’t even understand that the federal government doesn’t choose a state’s voting machines. The usually reliable Laura Linney (we won’t mention The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)) plays Eleanor Green, an employee at a company called Delacroy that manufactures a new whiz-bang voting machine. She’s discovered a glitch in the machine that will cause it — somewhat improbably — to throw the election to a bogus winner based on double letters and the alphabet. (Wasn’t this gag used with an old-fashioned adding machine in 1951′s Double Dynamite?) She wants to blow the whistle; her bosses want to shut her up — by any means possible. (The fact that these guys are totally inept not only keeps the thrills at bay, it makes one wonder how they could run a convenience store, let alone a multi-million dollar corporation).
What’s telling in all this is that Levinson is near real political commentary here. The name Delacroy is obviously meant to conjure up the name Diebold and the specter of possible politically motivated voter fraud from a hardcore right-wing corporation. So why then does Levinson opt for a namby-pamby approach that carefully neuters any hint of a soupcon of a trace of a shadow of a political agenda in favor of a simplistic corporate cover-up? Presumably this is to make it fit better with the overall feel-good pap the movie is trying to peddle in the midst of its bewhiskered — even molded-and-haired-over — jokes about Barbara Bush’s hair, inhaling marijuana smoke and Hugh Grant’s hooker arrest (these are topical?). How else to get to the schmaltz of Dobbs’ “healing” speech about how there aren’t really any red states and blue states and that “business as usual” is a fine, patriotic approach? The question is why anyone would want to get there in the first place. Perhaps Levinson knows. I certainly don’t. Rated PG-13 for language, including some crude sexual references; drug related material; and brief violence.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke